When I first got the message about curfew and began to see the news coming in about the riots, I had a pretty visceral reaction. People are doing WHAT?? I thought. We watched footage of teenagers banging down plywood to break into Ross. They had brought baskets to take home their loot. I can only describe my feeling as one of disgust. Stealing has nothing to do with bringing justice to George Floyd. Plus, don’t you realize the officer will be tried?? What are you rioting for?
If you are a white American, you may have had a similar reaction to me. And you may be joining thousands of people who are expressing their outrage at how far the riots have gone, and how much destruction they have caused. Yes, we all sympathize with Black Americans in our society. We are all disturbed by the way the George Floyd died. But rioting??
This gut response, this outrage that we feel, shows up when we encounter something that runs totally against our ideas of right and wrong. Some people are more outraged about Floyd’s death than the riots. Others have it the other way around.
But as I felt my own outrage and saw outrage all over social media and elsewhere, I began to question it. Does outrage really get us anywhere? Doesn’t it just make an already polarized situation worse? And what are we really saying with our outrage, and why do we do it?
I’ve had people be outraged at me before. Occasionally it happens on the road. Maybe I’ve made a right turn into oncoming traffic, without seeing someone coming. They have to swerve to avoid me and then they open their window and curse me out, outraged that anyone would make such a stupid, dangerous move.
It doesn’t feel good to have someone respond to you with outrage. It feels like they’re saying that only a complete and utter imbecile, a poor, disgusting excuse for a human being, would EVER do something like what I just did. Ouch.
But what about when I’m the person expressing outrage? When I’m the one insinuating that about someone else? What am I saying? Like the guy who curses me out, I am also putting the other person down. What kind of lowly excuse for a human being loots a store? I’m thinking.
But I’m also saying something about myself. I’M above that sort of wrong. I would NEVER do what you just did. I wouldn’t even CONSIDER it. So how could YOU??
By expressing outrage, we make ourselves feel like we’re on moral high ground. Our virtue-signaling makes us feel like we have no connection to the mistakes made by the people around us because we would never make them ourselves.
What the Nazir Teaches Us About Our Outrage
In this week’s parsha, we encounter the laws of the Sotah, a woman suspected of adultery. Immediately after, we encounter the laws of the Nazir. The two laws are placed side by side, we are told, because anyone who sees a Sotah in her disgrace should take the oath of a Nazirite.
Wait a minute? What’s the connection between seeing a Sotah and becoming a Nazir? Well, drinking alcohol can lead to sexual immorality. Therefore anyone who witnesses another person who is suspected of being guilty of sexual immorality should refrain from drinking alcohol himself!
How so? Is Joe Shmoe suddenly at risk of a cardinal sin, just because he saw someone else who might have been? Can’t he distance himself from the sin in another way – perhaps by simply expressing outrage?!
See, if modern people were present for the case of an Isha Sotah, their facebook responses would sound something like, “Can you BELIEVE she was in a locked room with another man?? I am sickened by such behavior! Even if her husband was treating her poorly, NOTHING justifies betraying her marriage! I have a friend whose husband treated her poorly, but she would NEVER sink to this level!”
Don’t these responses convince you of the moral character of their speaker? Shouldn’t the Torah be happy to see how much we condemn bad behavior?
Yet it does not ask this of us. When we witness someone else fall, we are not supposed to tell ourselves I would never fall! We are supposed to realize that we can all fall. The Torah asks us to recognize that in all human failings, we may too, in some way, fail. Whether the failing is the racism of a white cop, or the crazed anger and recklessness of rioters.
How are we supposed to respond? By taking the oath of a Nazir – the precaution against evil. Moral grandstanding and virtue-signaling make us feel good about our moral high ground. The Torah does not ask us to feel good – it asks us to take lesson.
When we witness riots, we must understand that all people can be driven mad by anger. They can feel so little investment in their society that looting seems acceptable. They can feel so little investment in themselves that risking arrest doesn’t mean anything for them. Could you arrive at this point, under the right circumstances? You could. So take action to protect yourself from these mistakes.
When we hear of a cop who kills a black man unnecessarily, we must reflect on our own biases and unwillingness to hear the pleading of another. Rather than focusing on our moral outrage against an admittedly horrifying crime, we must ask where we are prejudiced, friend, because we all are. We must ask what vow of the Nazirite is available to us, to guard us from racism and callous indifference to human life.
When we realize that the mistakes of others are our own potential mistakes, we cannot feel outrage. We cannot condemn other people as animals and thugs. We are forced to see others as human beings who are making mistakes, as we make mistakes every day.
Moral Clarity and Empathy – Not Mutually Exclusive
You may think that by refusing to give into our feelings of outrage, we put our moral clarity at risk. If I’m willing to see others’ mistakes, even terrible ones, as human, isn’t that a slippery slope? Don’t I put myself at risk for rationalizing my own wrongs, defending them as being “natural responses to oppression” or “expressions of my position and personality”?
While I think it is true that empathy sometimes becomes a road to moral relativity, I don’t think it has to be. We can maintain high standards of correct behavior, without blackwashing the individuals who may not live up to them.
To judge, to blackwash – ANY person or group – is to stamp them with a damaging label that can feel impossible to escape. If our goal is to help all human beings move forward, we cannot do that.
In this climate, it is easy to feel outrage. Blacks feel it because they have been marginalized for so long. The country feels it because we are watching our cities destroyed before our eyes. Yet at the core of this struggle is a deep misunderstanding, and deep wounds that need to be healed.
Though we do not need to condone wrong actions, we must still seek to understand the human beings behind them. It is only in this way that we will build bridges that repair the breach and allow the mistakes to end.