Inspiration or Degradation – Lessons of the Riots

The Torah requires us to take inspiration from the world around us.  We are not supposed to just be a witness to current events.  No matter what we experience or see, we have to find a way to interpret that into an action that propels us forward in our spiritual and religious life. A great example of that is found in conjunction with the mitzvah of Sotah in this week’s parsha.  Famously, Rashi explains the juxtaposition of the mitzvah of Sotah (a woman suspected of infidelity towards her husband, who undergoes a particular ritual trial in the Beit Hamikdash) with the mitzvah of Nazir (a person who is compelled by his oath to refrain from wine, cutting his hair, and contact with the deceased.) Rashi, quoting the Gemarah says that the juxtaposition is to teach that anyone who sees the Sotah in her degradation should take the Narzir’s oath and refrain from wine.  That is to say, the Torah doesn’t want us to just look at a situation and say, “Oh man, that Sotah is so bad!”  We are required to look at the bad situation and ask what inspiration we can find. A person should think, “Well, I know that alcohol can be a contributing factor in infidelity. I will take an oath to refrain from wine so as to reinforce in myself the values of self-control and chastity.”    Notice the Talmud isn’t saying, “Anyone who sees a Sotah in her degradation should go around talking trash about her and her family and her whole community.”  The requirement is what I should do to make ME better.

This past week I have found two approaches among by beloved coreligionists to the riots and demonstrations.  I’m sad to say that there are people saying and teaching now, an approach which I think should have been retired a long time ago. They focused their attention on the looters and rioters claiming that their behavior is indicative of the whole community.  One teacher I know told his class, “They’re behaimas[1] (animals)” in reference to the entire community. He made it seem like there was no good excuse for demonstrations. He believed that the entire episode was just an excuse to pillage. He used language in class that we consider out of bounds, and then later did it in conversation with my wife, until she called him on it. The use of language in our community such as “behaima” and “shvartze” are what the media calls dog-whistle language.  They are being used as racial slurs, and anyone who says differently is lying to themselves.[2]  I think that this is similar to the approach the Torah rejects –we don’t just look at the Sotah and call her out.  We have to keep it in the language of ME not HER.  What can I do?

I’m proud to say that in my community it’s much more prevalent to speak with neighbors who look at the news and understand why the black community is so fed up. There is a definite shift in language and feelings here and I want everyone to understand that it is widespread and represents a real sea change. Here’s what I taught my high school talmidim (students) –

  • The Talmud[3] teaches us that the Jewish people can be identified by three characteristics, one of which is that they are rachamanim – they are compassionate. No one Jewish should be able to look at what happened to George Floyd and not be moved out of compassion for another human being.  It should be instinctual – part of our DNA.  Jewish people, regardless of their level of observance are and always have been compassionate.  And that teacher who saw the video and talked to his class about Mr. Floyd’s underlying health conditions – that’s a shanda! That’s not the Jewish way at all.
  • The Torah[4] teaches us Lo Sa’amod al Dam Rei’acha – Do not stand idly by when your friend’s blood is being shed. Now I’m not sagacious enough to know if that mitzvah technically applies to non-Jews as well, but did you hear how his peers tried to help?  Did they do enough? If they did more would they have jeopardized themselves? Are you required to risk your own life or well-being for another? It was a great conversation in our Zoom-room. What a great opportunity to learn Torah values and mitzvos from a real-life situation. And even better, you get to highlight non-Jews trying to do the right thing.  That’s pretty uncommon in a yeshiva classroom and I wish that yeshiva teacher I know would have chosen this path. Those upstanders didn’t seem at all like “behaimas” to me.
  • Dina d’malchusa dina is the religious principle that makes complying with civil law a religious responsibility. An interesting detail is that, halacha does not require Jews to keep laws that are designed specifically to discriminate against them.  But what about non-Jews? What would the halacha say about peaceful protest as a way to change the government? What is the halachik source for non-Jewish governments to deal with their governed in an equitable way? When the Charedim in Meah Shearim riot are they compliant with the halacha? Is there a halachik way to protest?  What a great class for high school. How much more interesting would that have been than pointing out the things that were wrong.
  • There is no doubt that there are people involved who couldn’t care less about Black Lives or George Floyd. Those people are clearly motivated by the darkness of greed and the fire of revenge. And this is also consistent with the Torah – as the Mishnah[5] says, we should pray for the welfare of the government because if not for fear of law and order –ish es rei’aihu chaim blila’oh – each man would swallow his friend alive. So a person can look at riots and take a lesson that we need to improve our prayer for the welfare of the government.  I honestly believe this is how Hashem wants us to approach the news.  Not to sit around and trash other people to make yourself feel good.

I think that our students (and even we ourselves) need to hear that our faith is that we are the Am Segulah, Hashem’s treasured nation.  But when the Torah[6] teaches us that we are special to Hashem it doesn’t say that it’s because other people are worse than us.  It says that Hashem had a special relationship with the Avos (our forefathers) and we’re connected to that, and that Hashem see something special in us, and that’s what makes the relationship unique.  To me that’s a much more worthy lesson than saying someone else is acting like an animal.

In the final moments, at the end of class what I closed with was that I think that speeches and protests are important, but I don’t think they are important and the small moments between people. I think that if we want to change the world then it starts with really, really seeing the tzelem elokim in each person. Not just at the big moments of public protests, but all the time. All. The Time.  And in the first ever dvar Torah that mentions Rav Soloveitchik to also mention Michael Jackson, maybe we need to start with the man in the mirror. Jews can’t be satisfied with thinking, “that guy is bad.” It always has to become, “I need to get better.”  I think that’s why the Torah but Sotah next to Nazir.

[1] It seems to me that there are several sources that you could use to back up the dismissive, “they’re behaimas.” I will attempt to debunk a couple – 1) Yevomos 61A – “you are called Adam but non-Jews are not called Adam”  In context that is only to teach that non-Jewish dead aren’t metamei bohel (which BTW, is not the way the Mechaber paskins YD 372:2) it’s very specific – not a binyan av to interpreting behavior.  In fact, the Gemarah goes on to ask several questions where it seems clear that non-Jews are included under the term “Adom”. 2) Rashi by Akeidat Yitzchak comment on the phrase, “stay here with the donkeys” that Yishmael and Eliezer represent an “Am Domeh L’chamor” – a nation similar to donkeys. – However the Gemarah in Yevamos 62A understand that drasha is only in reference to Avodim.  That is, since there is a kinyan haguf on an eved kna’ani he has no essential “self” and therefore no halachik descendants. Which would also have no bearing on our situation.

[2] My proof is that the Yiddish word for white is Vais – and I never heard anyone call a white non-Jew a vaisah.

[3] Yevamos 79A y

[4] Vayikra 19:9  s

[5] Avos 3:2

[6] Devarim 7:7-8

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies for the high school at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School.He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children that range from Awesome to Fantastic. And now two precious granddaughters.
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