Bye bye, police

Thinking of disbanding the police? You might want to spend a few days here in Joburg first. You can stay at our house, we’re quite safe behind our 10 ft. wall, which is topped with an electrified fence. Don’t worry, if anything (G-d forbid) happens, we push a “panic button” and, in no time, black-clad, assault-rifle-wielding ex-GI’s swarm the house to neutralise any threat. My kids know the guys personally and they’re actually quite friendly- unless, of course, you’ve trespassed into our neighbourhood.

Cops? We hardly ever see them. We have them. Some of them are exceptionally dedicated and skilled. Most police stations are understaffed, by under-trained, under-equipped and (hence) unmotivated individuals. I guess it’s no surprise that South Africa boasts third place in world crime rankings.

Those haunting scenes of gutted American brand-name stores, the glass shards all over 5th Avenue and the smoking cars in L.A. remind me of some of our local hoods. And those scenes happened with the police on hand.

I’d love to say that society is all grown up and ready to self-govern, but crime stats and behavioral patterns indicate otherwise.

For now, at least, we still need the cops. Yet, the question of redirecting police funding to “youth and social services”- as New York’s Mayor Di Blasio has suggested- has merit. Even the argument to disband the police (albeit impractical) is thought-provoking.

The Torah instructs us to establish courts and systems of law enforcement. Our sages warn that a society without respect for institutional authority will quickly disintegrate into anarchy.

Then you encounter this week’s Torah portion, and you have to wonder about the Torah’s long-game for civil obedience.

This week’s portion describes the instruction to Aaron to light the Temple’s Menorah each day. Only, the Torah doesn’t say “light” the Menorah; it says “raise the lights”. Torah language is precise and nuanced, which leads Rashi (the foremost commentator on Torah) to conclude that the message here is, “Light the Menorah until the flame is independently sustainable”. In other words, Rashi teaches, Aaron and his successors could not discharge their obligation by simply setting the wicks alight. They were to ensure that the flames continued to burn, even after they would leave the building.

Of course, that seems self-evident. Why should the Torah have to tell us how to light a candle? In any other circumstance, it would be obvious that you’ve only lit a fire once you no longer need to keep lighting the fire. Yes, that might be obvious when you ignite Shabbos candles or your BBQ. It may be less obvious when it comes to igniting the soul of another person.

King Solomon teaches that every soul is like G-d’s candle. When G-d tells Aaron how to light the Menorah, He alludes to how we should inspire the next person. Leaders, rabbis, parents and teachers know the intoxicating feeling of touching and inspiring someone. An inspiring teacher loves the way the students hang on to his every word. He enjoys the way they keep returning to learn more, his classes filling, his podcasts widely shared. A mother loves the way her children seek her guidance. She knows that she is tasked with shaping and directing her young ones to behave, to be kind and respectful, to have good manners and values. Should they step out of line, she knows that it is up to her to rein them in.

Society is not altogether different to a family. Parents need to establish rules for their children, who are not yet capable to determine what behaviour is best for themselves. Wishy-washy home protocols engender anxiety that often prompt a child to act out. There are no feel-good shortcuts, you have to establish appropriate parameters to produce balanced, secure children. Leave society to their own devices and they’ll soon burn cars and loot stores.

But, we can’t micromanage kids forever. The goal of firm parenting is not to control but to empower. A successful parent aims to implant skills, values and responsibility in the child. You want your child to stand on their own two feet. You want them to know right so clearly that they never even consider stepping outside of the pale of decency. You can’t always look over their shoulder. You don’t want to. You want to enjoy the nachas of knowing that you have imparted the right stuff so successfully that they are independently viable citizens.

You want to light their candle until it can burn on its own.

Yes, the Torah directs us to establish efficient court systems and a viable police force. But, in our daily prayers, we ask Hashem to bring us to a time when we will reestablish those judges, but with advisors- not police- at their side.

The police are imperative as long as society remains immature. Our aspiration should be to create a world that is so well-educated and so attuned to wholesome values that they don’t need anybody to police them.

The call to dismantle the police is premature. The conversation that it sparks is important.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe firmly believed that, through focused education during children’s formative years, we could shift society. If we could ingrain in them a sense of responsibility to a Higher Power, they would learn how to self-regulate. Once we stop teaching that you behave to avoid punishment, but you do what is right, because it is wholesome, you develop a society that longer needs to be herded into compliance by force .

The conversation has begun. Now, our challenge will be to reassess what we teach our kids. If we can realign young people to do what is right, because it is right, we will, indeed, be able to retire the police force- not because protesters have demand it, but because we have become so healthy that we no longer require it.

About the Author
Rabbi Shishler together with his wife, Naomi and their eight children, runs Chabad of Strathavon in Sandton, South Africa. Rabbi Shishler is a popular teacher who regularly lectures around the globe. he hosts a weekly radio show in South Africa and is the rabbi of Facebook's largest Ask the Rabbi group.
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