The Empathy We Need
Jun 01 , 2020/Category

This message was sent to the CRS community on Sunday, May 31, 2020.

Dear Rodeph Sholom family,

A prominent scholar once defined Jews as those who read the Passover story and took it personally.

In the Torah’s evocative narrative, God heard the moaning of our people choking under Egyptian oppression, deeply felt our pain and expected human beings to do likewise. Central to our identity is that we ourselves were in Egypt, not just our ancestors, and we might sense what it means to gasp for air.

The cry “I can’t breathe” should make all of us shudder and it should resonate with every New Yorker. Eric Garner wheezed those final words almost six years ago in Staten Island. According to the second chapter of Genesis, when the first human was created, God infused into his nostrils the breath of life.

Breathing is living, Torah teaches. So, the deprivation of oxygen to George Floyd for those many minutes was a sure death sentence. The actions of Officer Derek Chauvin and the equally shocking indifference of the officers who did not intervene are unconscionable.

In my view, policing is an extremely difficult job and most officers do this tough job honorably. Personally, I am comforted when I see a uniformed officer in front of our Rodeph Sholom buildings. However, I understand why people of color often do not feel the same sense of security, and that disparity desperately needs to be addressed. In this way most of us cannot truly relate to the experience of being Black in the United States of America.

All of us have watched strong reactions erupt across the country including New York City. Peaceful protest must be endorsed and protected as a constitutional right. Surely the pain of unemployment inequality and the realization that COVID-19 has disproportionately victimized Black Americans has added to expressed anger and anguish.

I certainly hope and pray that the inexcusable and destructive actions of a handful of instigators, from the left or the right, will not allow some to conveniently seek the comfort of moral equivalence and forestall the need to address systemic racism and other forms of bigotry.

What saddens me deeply is how little progress we seem to have made on racism and anti-Semitism. My hope is that this horrible pandemic will teach all of us how much we need each other, that we must look beyond differences, and find deeper empathy for all of God’s children.

Just as we learned in Egypt.

Just as we learned at Sinai.

Rabbi Robert N. Levine, D.D.

Senior Rabbi

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