This morning I, along with two members of my congregation, Young Israel of Fort Lee, were taken to our local police station. No, we were not arrested. Rather, we were taken there by the words of a wise rabbi who lived nearly 2,000 years ago.
In the third chapter of “Ethics of our Fathers”, a compilation of ethical teachings from some of Judaism’s greatest minds, Rabbi Chanina states: “Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.”
At first glance, Rabbi Chanina is elucidating a very practical point. It is in the best interest of every person to pray for the welfare of the government. Stable governments ensure their citizens are kept safe and protected. Secure governments allow businesses to flourish and thrive. Everyone benefits when strong and just governments are in control.
However, there is an even more profound message found in Rabbi Chanina’s words. One of the outstanding 13th century Spanish rabbis, Rabbi Jonah of Gerona, explains that Rabbi Chanina’s teaching reflects a core value of the Jewish People – we care for all of humanity. We are taught to pray for the integrity of the government because millions of people will suffer if anarchy reigns. We believe that every person is created in the image of the Almighty and as such, our concern must extend well beyond the confines of our Jewish communities.
Jews throughout the millennia have always expressed their deep compassion for humanity. In 2004, after the devastating tsunami hit Southeast Asia, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein, the late leader of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Israel, interrupted his students’ Torah studies and insisted that everyone begin to pray for the victims of this calamitous natural disaster. One particularly audacious student questioned the Rabbi’s decision to interrupt Torah studies to pray for people who live thousands of miles away and have no connection to the Jewish People or the State of Israel. Rabbi Lichtenstein looked at the student in bewilderment. How can you not pause your Torah learning to pray when so many innocent people are suffering?
As the news of the murder of five innocent police officers in Dallas occupied the headlines, our community’s thoughts shifted from the bereaved families in Texas to our own policemen and policewomen in Fort Lee. Not a day goes by when these brave officers don’t risk their lives to protect the citizens of our municipality. When was the last time we said thank you? When was the last time we had the opportunity to demonstrate our deep appreciation for their self-sacrifice and heroism? How can we show the police department that we stand united with them in these tumultuous times?
Sometimes all it takes is a bagel.
This morning, my congregation delivered bagels and doughnuts to the Fort Lee police department. We did not solve the world’s problems. We did not end the pain and suffering inflicted by the murderer of the Dallas policemen. However, I do believe we displayed our commitment to those people who protect us on a daily basis. I do believe the food we delivered meant more than just calories – it represented our deep appreciation and concern for an extraordinary group of men and women.
I hope Rabbi Chanina would be proud.