Amen

Convulsive days have displaced confining ones.  58% of respondents this week favored calling in the military to supplement city police forces.  Just 30% opposed doing so.  This from the same poll that noted a sizable increase in those demanding more protest marches across the country.  Reconciling these sentiments becomes possible when we face today’s infernal epidemic of mistrust.  Late Night entertainer Trevor Noah captured this betrayal of trust more reflectively than any maddening footage or poll results can.

The subhuman killing of George Floyd – the ruthless crushing of his windpipe – deserves rage of biblical proportions.  Something so cold-bloodedly wrongful must be met with an insistence on that which is warmheartedly rightful.  We cannot continue malignant policies and to be misled.

Two important impulses are impaired by explosive fury and consuming fear: the ability to differentiate and the potential for promise keeping.  There is a vast difference between protest which is the highest form of Patriotism and Prophetic duty, and criminal violence that maims and murders, that vandalizes valuables and eviscerates values.  Such differentiation is essential to a capacity to regain footing, reverse course, and become worthy of a more promising potential.

Yet agonizing powerlessness is entirely understandable. Where to turn? Consider the transformation of a single biblical word – a word which people of faith have made their own for thousands of years all over the world – a word that makes its first appearance in this week’s portion of Torah: the word ‘amen’.  Amen is humanity’s response to prayerful sentiments.  It signals faithful trust.  But this wasn’t always so.

Each year I feel stunned by the peculiarly troubling context for birth of the word Amen.  It comes in a passage that describes an irrationally jealous husband who forces his wife to undergo a demeaning ordeal to ascertain whether she is guilty of adultery (Num. 5:22).  Amen’s earliest biblical appearance is in a faith-dissolving ritual of dark distrust.

Perhaps, it occurs to me this year, such a misfit is purposeful.  Maybe it demonstrates that it’s possible to transport a word from a setting of toxic mistrust to profusions of faith-affirming trust.  Rabbinic policies make such transportation possible.  The prophetic reading this week rebalances a wife’s dignity, as Judy Klitsner as eloquently taught, and the sages retire the ritual entirely.  Why then is it in the Torah?  To demonstrate that the odyssey from destructive distrust toward sacred faith-warming trust is – in a word – possible.

We must never forget that people are not property.  The loss of the infinitely precious should never matter less than the loss of the replaceable.  So too with Scripture.  A proprietary relationship with the Bible requires opening it.  Doing so can open each learner.  May everyone discover, in so doing, fresh ways toward sacred duty and selfless service.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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