Sensitivity to Human Life

Friday, 5 June, 2020 - 11:15 am

Our country is still reeling from the tragic sniffing out of George Floyd’s life. There is no question that this was an example of police brutality. There is no question that African Americans are disproportionately the targets of police brutality. There are certainly major issues of systemic racism that need to be addressed in our society, on many levels. I do not believe that all members of the police force are racist; nor that they all “practice” brutality. I am not privy to enough information to be able to intelligently comment on the specifics of this case. However, as a Rabbi, my role is see how Judaism/Torah might be able to inform us as we seek solutions to these issues. I would like to share a Torah nugget that addresses one facet of this conversation.

Ethics of our Fathers cautions us to value the role of authority, “Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive.” Members of law enforcement put themselves at risk for the protection of society. In doing so, they are regularly exposed to situations, where the need to defend one life, necessitates putting the welfare of another at risk. A possible result of this can be, a slowly developed cheapening of life, especially the life of one who is perceived as a criminal or a potential threat. This insensitivity can subconsciously seep into the psyche of a police officer. What solution does Torah offer for this problem? I will borrow from the Torah’s instructions to soldiers, who are faced with a similar dilemma.

Most of the Torah’s instructions regarding war can be found in the middle of Deuteronomy. In the middle of the passages that deal with war, the Torah interrupts to address the discovery of an unidentified corpse outside a city. The city elders and the priests need to come and perform a ceremony and declare “our hands did not spill this blood.” This passage conveys Hashem’s great pain over needless loss of life. Context is very important in the Torah. As such, the placement of this passage in the middle of the section on war is curious. To explain: The Jewish soldiers that went to war needed to somewhat suppress their sensitivity in order to fight and defend their people against enemies who wished to destroy them. Being involved in war and killing, soldiers can encounter a difficulty in maintaining their sensitivity to human life. Therefore the Torah inserts the passage about the tragedy of death, seemingly out of context, because it is just the lesson needed to cultivate the mindfulness regarding the value of a human life.

Members of law enforcement, must inculcate this lesson into their training and mindset. Precisely because they are faced with the potential need to defend life with the use of force, their sensitivity to the value of human life (all human life) must be maintained at a heightened state.

May Hashem bless our society with the healing that we need so that we can come to live together as one nation under G-d, with real liberty and true justice for all.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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