Many Worlds Worth Saving Beyond Our Own

The Talmud teaches that “Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.” Over these past few days, whole worlds have been destroyed in Baton Rouge, La., here in Minnesota, and as of last night in Dallas. Words. Thoughts. Prayers. At this moment, all seem wanting in the face of so much horror. So much sadness.

Many others have said as much, complaining somewhat ironically on social media that statements, shared links, and memes are no substitute for strong action. As professionals, whose jobs increasingly involve drafting press releases in response to outrage after outrage, we have some sympathy for this point of view. Others question the benefit of gathering together in peaceful protest as thousands of us did yesterday on the grounds of the J.J. Hill Montessori School in St. Paul in honor of Philando Castile, who was senselessly killed by police this past Wednesday. To these critics, even this heartfelt, sacred assembly and the somber, peaceful march which followed it to the Governor’s Mansion feels wanting.

And yet, as Jews our history compels us to not take these freedoms, as well as the men and women who protect and serve us, for granted. For much of Jewish history, we were dependent on the beneficence of the sovereign. If we were fortunate, we were left alone. When more often than not we were persecuted there was no guaranteed right to raise our voices in protest. By contrast, in America has any group benefited more from the First Amendment than us Jews?

Similarly, for much of our history, the armies and constables of the state were the instruments of our collective oppression. Today, while we are fully cognizant of the reality that for many Americans, and in particular communities of color, they do not enjoy the same positive relationship with law enforcement as most of us (not all Jews are white, not all Jews or any community universally shares the same experience), the gratitude that the vast majority of American Jews have towards law enforcement who faithfully protect our community is almost instinctual.

But even where there is still so much work to be done, where structural racism is demonstrably very real, it must be stated clearly that the vast majority of police officers do their jobs well and at times under difficult circumstances. Similarly, the horrific irony that five officers were murdered in Dallas – the worst single incident loss for law enforcement since 9/11 – while they protected a peaceful protest against the police should not be lost on anyone. So we see no contradiction in raising our voices in anger and sorrow against the completely unacceptable death of Philando Castile, and at the same time being grateful for the service of those who are sworn to protect all of us and who on a daily basis save entire worlds. And just as we were saddened and horrified by the death of Philando Castile, we feel the pain for the loss of the five who were murdered. Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Officer Michael Krol, Sgt. Michael J. Smith, Officer Patrick Zamarripa, and DART officer Brent Thompson, as well as the five other officers and two civilians who were injured in Dallas with equal measure. May here too their memories be for a blessing and a comfort to their families.

Returning to social media, several of my friends have recently quoted portions of Y.B. Yeats “The Second Coming.” It is a terrific poem and we can see why many find resonance in the lines, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” and “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Indeed, at the end of a terrible week, which comes on the heels of so many other recent horrors, things do seem to be falling apart.

But if Elie Wiesel z”l was correct and that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference” then we cannot agree that the “best lack all conviction.” We see your conviction in the many, many people who came to bear witness last night in St. Paul to remember and honor Philando Castile, the friends and family who engaged in difficult conversations online and in person with loved ones about inequality and gun violence, as well as all the people who irrespective of their politics have come together in genuine grief over the murder of five police officers. Together, we all form a strong community of decent people who know that there are still many, many worlds out there worth saving beyond our own.

Ethan Roberts is the Director of the Twin Cities Jewish Community Government Affairs Program for the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas.