Over the past week, there has been much news coverage in all the media devoted to the acquittal George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin. For a year and a half, the case produced headlines on a range of hot-button issues: racial profiling and race relations, gun control and due process of law. We are all familiar with the basic tragic facts of the case. A teenage African-American boy was killed by gunshot in a confrontation with a white volunteer patrol officer. At the same time, Americans of good faith have drawn different conclusions about what the case means, particularly in the aftermath of the verdict. The court trial dealt with legal questions such as criminal intent and self-defense. The court of public opinion is wrestling with larger moral questions that transcend the case itself. We as Jews need to wrestle with these questions as religious challenges. What role do racial stereotypes play in our personal and collective decision making? What are appropriate boundaries of self-defense? By extension, is “stand your ground” an acceptable Jewish principle? As one rabbinic colleague wrote in a blog post: When two people stand their ground, you have a stand off where only 1 person can win. There’s always a loser. Since nobody wants to lose, each person raises the stakes. In this case, the stakes were raised so high that only one of them would come out alive. Nobody felt an obligation to stand down, to de-escalate, to walk away, which was what the dispatcher had told Zimmerman to do. It was a tragic inability to de-escalate.
I am pleased that during the trial and over the last week, demonstrations have been peaceful and that Americans of all perspectives are airing opinions in ways befitting a democratic society committed to the rule of law. We have grown a lot as a nation in over 200 years of American history, but we still have a lot of healing to do. One possible path to healing is found squarely in our Torah reading this Shabbat.
In Parashat Vaetchanan, we read the most central passage in Jewish consciousness: the Shema: Shma Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Echad. And you shall love… V’shinantam l’vanecha v’dibarta bam. You shall teach them diligently to your children. This passage, which was lifted from the Torah and made the centerpiece of Jewish prayer, emphasizes teaching our children the mitzvoth, the commandments, that God has bestowed upon us.
The Rabbis in Midrash Sifrei comment on this verse to say that the Torah is not only referring to one’s own biological children. Of course any parent should teach Torah values to their children. Why would the Torah take the trouble to say something so obvious? Instead, the midrash says, ata motze b’kol makom she’ha talmidim kruyim vanim—students are always referred to as children. And since we are all students of one another, “You shall teach them diligently to your children” refers to anyone whose impression of Judaism is likely to be shaped by their contact with you. We are all students or potential students of one another. We all have responsibility as both teachers and pupils. How we act towards people sets an example for others. This is a high responsibility.
I follow a Facebook page by Susan Cain, author of the acclaimed book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” The book itself is worthy of a full discussion on another occasion, something I plan to do. In the meantime, Cain posted a powerful piece by another author on her Facebook page that for me is so appropriate this week.
Children Learn What They Live
By Dorothy Law Nolte, Ph.D.
If children live with criticism, they learn to condemn.
If children live with hostility, they learn to fight.
If children live with fear, they learn to be apprehensive.
If children live with pity, they learn to feel sorry for themselves.
If children live with ridicule, they learn to feel shy.
If children live with jealousy, they learn to feel envy.
If children live with shame, they learn to feel guilty.
If children live with encouragement, they learn confidence.
If children live with tolerance, they learn patience.
If children live with praise, they learn appreciation.
If children live with acceptance, they learn to love.
If children live with approval, they learn to like themselves.
If children live with recognition, they learn it is good to have a goal.
If children live with sharing, they learn generosity.
If children live with honesty, they learn truthfulness.
If children live with fairness, they learn justice.
If children live with kindness and consideration, they learn respect.
If children live with security, they learn to have faith in themselves and in those about them.
If children live with friendliness, they learn the world is a nice place in which to live.
In creating a decent community and society, we are all responsible for teaching and role modeling Jewish values for everyone of all ages, including and especially for the youngest among us. By adhering to v’shinantam l’vanecha, we cultivate a culture whereby we deal with conflicts that stand down and de-escalate conflict, rather than “stand your ground” and escalate conflict.
During the 1960s, amidst much turmoil in our society, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: “Some are guilty, but all are responsible.” In the case of the killing of Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in a court of law. Among America’s great blessings are that a person is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law and that guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. If the jury had reasonable doubt that Zimmerman committed a crime, then he should be a free man, and he is. He will not go to jail for the death of Trayvon Martin, and no one will. Yet, in some sense, we are all responsible for his death. We are responsible to teach and model patience, to teach and model loving kindness, to teach and model peace.
V’shinantam l’vanecha, you shall teach the values of Torah diligently to your children. The Torah calls on each of us to be a teacher so that we may together create a better world.