Who would have thought that I could learn something from Al Sharpton?

Last week somebody unexpectedly sent me a YouTube URL for Reverend Al Sharpton’s eulogy delivered at the funeral of Michael Brown, the African-American teenager shot dead nearly a month ago by a policeman in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis, Missouri. Ferguson was subsequently plagued by race riots and looting, as lawlessness raised its ugly head in the wake of the shooting. To be honest, I flicked through the email when it came, and didn’t watch the video, partly due to a lack of time, but also due to a longstanding antipathy towards Sharpton, whose vicious unforgivable anti-Semitic rhetoric during the Crown Height’s riots of 1991 I remember vividly and with distinct distaste. My abiding impression of Sharpton is that he has always been a troublemaker and race-hate stirrer, with a fondness for publicity that seems to have nothing to do with a concern for the downtrodden and oppressed black community he claims to represent. The character of Reverend Bacon in ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’, the Tom Wolfe race riots novel of 1987, is based on Sharpton, and Wolfe brilliantly encapsulates the cynical and opportunistic behavior of a community leader who whips up fear and hatred to satisfy a lust for power and publicity.

But then, on a hunch, I decided to watch Sharpton’s eulogy. It turned out to be a masterful piece of oratory (I wish I could get that kind of instant audience feedback during one of my sermons!) and it took me completely by surprise. Perhaps it is because we just began Ellul, the month of Teshuva, and somehow the spirit of repentance was hovering in the air when he spoke. Perhaps with the startling loss of 150lbs – the man is almost unrecognizable! – Sharpton has lost the part of him that feels the need to manipulate emotions into race hatred, by which I mean blacks hating whites. Perhaps old age has mellowed this firebrand into a rather more statesmanlike figure. Or maybe it is none of the above, and Sharpton is still the nasty rabble-rouser I recall. I simply don’t know. What I do know is that Sharpton’s eulogy, in a highly charged atmosphere, was a measured and credible response to the tragic death of Michael Brown, a response that inevitably tackled white indifference to police brutality against the black community, but which also addressed the black community’s incredible capacity to turn an event like this into a frenzy of crime and anarchy, which more often than not impacts blacks more than whites, as he drily pointed out.

“We’ve got to be straight up in our community, too,” he said. “We have got to be outraged by our killing and shooting, and running around gun-toting each other, so that they’re justified in trying to come at us because some of us act like the definition of blackness is how low you can go. We’ve got to clean up our community so we can clean up the United States of America!”

“This is not about you,” he told the mourners, “this is about justice.”

It struck me that this message was timely. This past week’s Torah portion begins with an instruction that is a directive about the construct of a stable society: ‘You should appoint judges and law-enforcement officers at all your gates, and the nation shall be judged righteously. You should pursue pure justice, so that you shall live.’

In Pirkei Avot – the Talmudic tractate that teaches Jewish ethics and basic common sense – we hear from R. Chanina (3:2), who proposes that we ‘pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor up alive.’ He is stating, bluntly, what will happen if we don’t follow the pasuk at the beginning of our portion. The rule of thumb is that any stable society needs a judiciary and a law enforcement arm, with each of them giving the other credibility. If there is corruption or weakness in one, than the other one is automatically weakened, and anarchy is guaranteed.

We in the west are currently watching many parts of the world descend into utter mayhem. There is no justice, and no one to enforce the law. People are struggling to survive. But we must not be complacent. We must not fool ourselves into thinking that our societies, and the countries we live in, are so stable and safe. There is plenty of lawlessness simmering below the surface right here where I live in the United States. We in the Jewish community are acutely aware of it, and it seems that Reverend Sharpton has also cottoned on. We must be extraordinarily vigilant in these dangerous times.

So as the countdown to Rosh Hashana begins, and as we look forward to the Days of Awe, let us use this period to reflect on how we can work towards not only a society that serves our own personal interests, but a society that is robust for everyone who is a part of it, and where systemic failure is tackled even by those who are not directly affected. As Sharpton observed: “This is not about you, this is about justice.” We must fight injustice, and we must also ensure that we, ourselves, are models of integrity and propriety. The world we know and cherish literally depends on it.

About the Author
Rabbi Pini Dunner is the Senior Rabbi at Beverly Hills Synagogue, a member of the Young Israel family of synagogues. He lives with his family in Beverly Hills, California.