Shavuot and the Rule of Law



Shavuot, which we commemorated last week, marks the pivotal moment in Jewish history when God gave the Ten Commandments not only to Moses but to the entire Israelite community that gathered at Mount Sinai. Among those commandments is “Thou shalt not murder,” often translated as “Thou shalt not kill.”

Our wise sages point out that, sometimes, killing is justified, for example in self-defense or in wartime, but murder never is justified. The overriding message is that the rule of law needs to prevail.

Thus it is bitterly ironic that in the very week of Shavuot, our nation was shocked and outraged at the horrific video of a Minneapolis police officer grinding his knee on the neck of the unarmed George Floyd — who was already handcuffed and face down on the pavement — for nearly nine minutes. Floyd’s plaintive cries of “I can’t breathe” were ignored until the African American man lay dead.

Three other officers stood by without intervening, even while bystanders pleaded that Officer Derek Chauvin stop the de facto execution of a handcuffed and prostrate man. Had it not been for a cell phone video taken by a witness, Chauvin might literally have gotten away with cold-blooded murder. All four officers were fired, as they should have been, and Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, charges that could become more serious as the investigation proceeds.

Had the story stopped there, it would have been bad enough. Then, sadly, rioting broke out in dozens of cities across the country, including parts of the St. Louis area. The gatherings often began as peaceful protest but devolved into orgies of wanton destruction with police cars and neighborhood businesses set ablaze. We have been here before, in Los Angeles after Rodney King, in Ferguson after Michael Brown, followed by hand-wringing, finger-pointing and endless studies that too often were filed away and forgotten.

Anat Cohen at The Sheldon

The violent and tragic aftermath of the police murder of George Floyd took place in the same week that the U.S. death toll from the coronavirus surpassed 100,000, when joblessness reached levels not seen since the Great Depression and the nation’s bitter partisan divide grew worse at the very time we need unity more than ever. Frustration and a sense of hopelessness that have gripped much of the nation boiled over into actions that are far from excusable but could be considered understandable.

It is a time when Americans yearn for true leadership, but there was little to be seen from the White House. Even as protesters battled police outside the gates of the president’s residence, Donald Trump failed the nation by issuing only weak statements of concern, at the same time fanning the flames by tweeting sentiments including, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” 

He also attacked his favorite whipping boy, the “Lamestream Media,” even as reporters risked their safety to show Americans what was happening in their cities.

From a president who once counseled police not to be too gentle when forcing suspects into cars, inciting official violence is exactly what the nation did not need.

Other voices were more profound and helpful. 

In Minnesota, Rabbi Aaron Weininger of the Adath Jeshurun Congregation invoked the words of Deuteronomy, “justice, justice shall you pursue,” urging people to stay home and not dishonor the memory of George Floyd or embolden anyone to commit violent acts.

David Goldenberg, Midwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, pledged that his organization will work to ameliorate the causes of the violence, saying:

“We will call for inclusive policy-making processes and continue to speak out against racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, hate and discrimination of all kinds. We will advocate for anti-racist police practices, as well as call for the removal of officers who have track records of unnecessary force or are affiliated with racist hate groups.”

Almost overlooked amid all of the disease, destruction and injustice engulfing us was the picture-perfect launch of the SpaceX capsule from Cape Canaveral, the first American space mission from U.S. soil in nearly a decade. It was therapeutic to look heavenward during all of the chaos of recent days.

John F. Kennedy’s words inspired the success of our moon mission. But today, our attention and our action must be focused here on Earth, pursuing justice with the same intense dedication shown by the success of our space program and the search for a COVID-19 vaccine and cure. 

As we ask for divine guidance during this dark time, let us remember that the same JFK also told us:

“Here on Earth, God’s work must truly be our own.”