More TragedyAs the summer months arrived, we learned of more black lives killed by police shootings. After the rash of police shootings last summer and the resultant furor, we would have expected the police to introduce responsible measures to reduce tragedy, but whatever measures were taken, were simply not enough. More black lives were lost this summer; a pattern that needs to stop.
But what to do about it? The answer is not to create more tragedy by rioting and shooting police officers. These heroes put themselves on the line for us every day and don’t deserve to be slaughtered. The path forward must be a systemic overhaul of the way black communities are policed in America.
I was chatting with an African American the morning after the Dallas massacre of five police officers. This man was disgusted by the violence. He begged for calm, but also for a change in the policing methods. He wanted community based policing. He called for special training and I agreed. These are not sporadic events. This appears to be systemic; it requires attention and a complete overhaul.
From Tragedy to JoyIf anyone can relate to tragedy and share the wisdom of experience, it is the Jews. The Jewish way is to regard every tragedy as an opportunity for improvement. The innocent men that were killed this summer will die in vain if their deaths produce more violence. For their deaths to matter, a reconciliation between black communities and police across the country must result. If lives are saved as a result, then these deaths will matter.
From tragedy to life is the theme of this Jewish season. We are in the midst of a three-week period that commemorates the destruction of the ancient Jewish Temples in Jerusalem. These three weeks, from the seventeenth of Tamuz to the ninth of Av, were marked by bloody killings and horrific tragedy. Yet, the Torah portion we read as these three weeks begin is about festivals and joy.
This portion recounts the offerings that were brought during the festivals. Festivals are themselves seasons of joy, but the offerings introduced an additional measure of joy. The offerings included libations of wine, a beverage associated with joy. Why is there so much joy in this season of tragedy?
Because this is the Jewish approach. Tragedy must lead to joyful improvement or it is senseless. This is reflected in the story of Pinchas, whose name this Torah portion bears. Pinchas was a grandson of Aaron and a disciple of Moses and when tragedy struck, only Pinchas was able to respond.
It happened when Midianite women visited the Jewish camp for the express purpose of seducing Jewish men. Many men succumbed to their lures including Zimri, a Jewish tribal prince. Not content with a private dalliance, Zimri took his Midianite lady to the public square and challenged Moses to object. This was a low point for the Jewish people. A spiritual rebellion with an uncouth dimension.
Moses was overwhelmed and knew not what to do. Noting the licentious rebellion in the gathering crowd, Pinchas arose, and after obtaining approval from Moses, unsheathed his sword and speared both Zimri and the woman. The crowd was stunned into silenced as Pinchas held the two aloft at the tip of his spear. With this Pinchas administered swift justice and quashed the rebellion.
The people began to grumble. Pinchas, whose grandfather, Jethro, had fattened calves for idol worship, dared to slay a Jewish prince? But G-d appeared and congratulated Pinchas. Because you were zealous on my behalf, I extend to you my covenant of peace. In reward for his zeal, G-d appointed Pinchas to the priesthood and the people were granted peace; their lives spared.
This is the pattern of Jewish history. Tension and tragedy lead to relief and joy. When we see the former, we prepare for the latter. When the three weeks of mourning commence, we read a Torah portion that turns tragedy into blessing, idol worship into righteous zeal and rebellion into peace. A portion that describes festivals of joy and offerings with libations of joy.
From Destruction to RedemptionThe Hebrew alphabet is layered with secret codes. One of these codes is known at AT BASH. In this code, the first letter, Alef, is supplanted with the last letter, Taf. The second letter, Bet, is supplanted with the second to last letter, Shin, and so forth.
There is a calendrical rule that follows this code. Alef, the first day of Passover, always falls on the same day of the week, as Taf - Tisha B’av, the anniversary of the Temple’s destruction. The second day of Passover is consistent with Shavuot. The third day is consistent with Rosh Hashanah and so on.
Passover especially the first day, is the festival of redemption. Why does the festival of redemption fall on the same day of the week as the anniversary of destruction?
Because Judaism sees destruction and redemption as two sides of the same coin. If you see destruction, find its redemptive power. From darkness, light is born. From death, is born life. When you are at the first letter of the alphabet, remember that it is born of the last letter. When you are at the last letter, remember, it is not the end. The Alphabet pivots and leads back to the first letter.
Don’t let tragedy define you. Insist on joy and life. Improve your standing with G-d and your relations with others. Find the cause of the tragedy and repair it. Work to make G-d’s world better and G-d’s people more peaceful. Believe in good results and you will see good results.
This message is embedded in the Hebrew letters of the name Pinchas. The first three letters, Pe, Yud, Nun are an acronym for Purkana, Yeshua and Nekama, which mean liberation, salivation and avenging. That which necessitated zeal and stricture on the part of Pinchas, brought about liberation and salvation for the people. The last two letters of the name form the Hebrew word Chas, a variation of love.
Black LivesLet us apply these messages to the recent tragic loss of black lives in America. The loss is deep and the pain is abiding, but all hope is not lost. Pain leads to healing and loss to fulfilment, but only if is pursued in constructive and healthy ways. If we want to have sweet from bitter, we must work toward it.
We must strengthen ourselves where we are lacking by being more loving and forgiving. We must be more joyful and bring joy to others. We must embrace the values and principles of faith and encourage others to do the same. We must turn the two sides into a single side and negotiate a safe path forward.
May G-d see our efforts and respond in kind. May this tragedy lead to an improvement of race relations, of justice and of peace. May the time come when the human race stands shoulder to shoulder before the one true G-d. Amen.