Rabbi David Segal
Aspen Jewish Congregation
July 15, 2016
In this week's parshah, we find the Israelites in the desert doing what they do best — complaining. This time, they don't have water. So they bring their grievance to Moses. “Why did you bring us out into this desert to die! We wish we'd never left Egypt!”
One can maybe forgive, or at least understand, Moses’s overreaction. He's fed up. So in anger he strikes the rock to make the water flow. The problem was, God had told him just to take his staff and assemble the people at the rock — not to hit it. Moses uses excessive force, and God sanctions him harshly — no Promised Land for him. It seems unfair, for such a misstep. But then again, do we not hold leaders to a higher standard?
This episode jumped off the page for me this week, though it's going to take me a moment to explain why. Our country is reeling from violence by and against police, by racial tensions boiling over, by the deliberate and vicious murder of 5 Dallas police officers — Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens — who were doing their jobs by keeping watch at what started as a peaceful protest against police bias and the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.
Being a Facebook junkie, I have been inundated with media, both social and mainstream, about what lessons we should learn or who is to blame or why this group or that group is racist or hateful or reverse racist (whatever that means). One message pierced through the noise and hit me hard. I heard it in the words of Dallas Police Chief David Brown.
Now before I share that message, Chief Brown’s background matters. He is a black man, and the steady and visionary leader of a police department that has been working hard to get it right. With him at the helm over the past six years, his department has reduced the murder rate dramatically. They have also seen a 30 percent drop in assaults on officers and a 40 percent drop in shootings by police, as well as a reduction in excessive force complaints by 80 percent. And then there’s his personal story. Six years ago, only weeks after he started in this role, his mentally ill son killed a civilian and a responding police officer before being fatally shot by police. To hear Chief Brown extend his condolences to the bereaved families while also mourning his own son — it is too heartbreaking to comprehend.
Chief Brown's message after the Dallas shooting was so important that Pres. Obama made it a focus of his own speech at the memorial for the five slain officers. Here is what Chief Brown said:
Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let's give it to the cops. Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem. Let's have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let's give it to the cops to solve that as well.
Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.
We ask the police to do too many jobs, and then we’re surprised when things go wrong. In addition to public safety, for which they put their lives on the line every day, we ask them to be social workers, mental health professionals, drug treatment specialists, social safety nets for homelessness and poverty.
Why? Because we have failed to live up to our responsibilities as citizens. We have failed to create communities that take care of— to put it in biblical terms — the widow and the orphan. We have failed to invest in infrastructure, mental health, drug treatment; we have failed to make the promise of a good education available to every child, and the promise of a good job to everyone willing to work for it. What kind of society criminalizes addiction, homelessness, depression — instead of treating and caring for them?
We laugh effortlessly at the Israelites, who looked at their problems and longed for those good old days back in Egypt. Egypt! The place of slavery! Look closer and we are laughing at ourselves. How many of us pontificate about the good old days when parents disciplined their kids and people respected cops, before ISIS was a threat? You know, the good old days when racial segregation was legal and Jews were barred from clubs, businesses, industries; when the Shoah killed 6 million Jews and WWII killed tens of millions of people… The “good old days”? Are we serious?
The Israelites look at the challenges they face in the desert as free people, and they whine—freedom, they're starting to learn, means responsibility. They could have said: Hey, there's a water shortage, let's work together to fix it so no one goes thirsty. But what do they do? They air their grievance and demand that their leader just fix it already! There is a shockingly fine line between enslavement and entitlement.
Is that what we've become? People who prefer the chains of Egypt to the challenge of the wilderness? Experts in outrage instead of initiative? Complaint instead of compromise?
Look what we pushed Moses to do. He's tired. He's overworked. He's sick of these stiff-necked people. All he sees when he looks out on the assembly is a bunch of complainers. Not many willing to chip in and say, I own these problems too. It's no wonder he loses his cool in a moment of frustration, anxiety, and probably even fear of the thirsty mob's wrath. He lashes out and slams the rock. Yes, he should have known better; yes, as a public servant he should rise above it all; and yes, consequences are merited when someone with power and authority makes a costly mistake.
But that shattered rock? That's not just on Moses. That's on the Israelite complainers, too.
That's on us.
What we can do instead is stop whining, and start working. Step out of our political echo chambers and say to those across the divide: We've got real problems here, and we all have a stake in this. You have some of the answers, and we have some of the answers, and we need each other. We are not enemies but partners.
In this valley, we are working on a project to bring together churches, synagogues, and non-profits devoted to education, health care, and community wellbeing. The vision is a multi-faith, multi-ethnic citizen coalition that will have a powerful voice in public life in our towns and valley region. The hope is to fulfill the Iron Rule of community organizing: Do not do for someone else what they can do for themselves. We want to create a community that works for everyone, because everyone works together to make it better. To those of you who consider Aspen a second home, I know there is an element of escapism in your time here, and a message like mine tonight can be a buzzkill for this adult summer camp. But I urge you to find a way, either here or in your hometown, to invest your time and resources in advancing your community. I know that most of you already do. Please don't forget that Aspen is not just your playground. It is a real place where people live, work, struggle, fail, and succeed, every day.
I hope, if nothing else, that you will pause every now and then and think of the complaining Israelites. When you find yourself tempted to say, “If only black people would…" Or, “If only the police would…" Or, “If only the President and Congress would…" — just wait. I learned recently that “WAIT” is an acronym for "Why Am I Talking?" Ask yourself: Am I trafficking in outrage? Am I whining about how it’s someone else's problem? Am I pretending like I don't bear any responsibility?
Don't get me wrong. We need to have uncomfortable conversations about #BlackLivesMatter and racial bias in the criminal justice system, about supporting the police and pushing for systemic reform, about broken families and broken communities. But it doesn't work if you enter the conversation as a whiner, a complainer, with an it's-not-my-problem, finger-pointing, blame-laying pretense of deniability.
Last century, during another generation’s civil rights struggle, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” Moses was guilty of using excessive force, and he suffered the consequences. But we are all responsible for creating the conditions that enabled that act of violence, that shattering of the rock. Today, we are all responsible for picking up the pieces and fixing it.