“If a corpse be found…”

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Chapter 21 of Deuteronomy (Shoftim: Deut 16:18-21:9) tells the Israelites what to do, upon entering the land, “if a corpse be found..the identity of the slayer not being known.” This is the elaborate ritual involving the Red Heifer in which the elders of the nearest town must be prepared to declare, “Our hands did not shed this blood…”

It turns out that this is not so simple, according to commentary across the centuries. First of all, many point out, neglect and indifference are sins and not easy ones to disavow.

Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, in the middle of the 20th Century:
“Few are guilty, but all are responsible.” (See The Prophets, and Essays on Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity, Essays edited by Susannah Heschel)

Ibn Ezra, the 12th Century Spanish commentator, writes that elders in Red Heifer cases have some responsibility for the fact of sinfulness was present in their town, without which the crimes could not have occurred.

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th Century commentator, hypothesized that the only case where a body would be left out in the open, in apparent mocking defiance of public officials, would be if town officials had sent a hungry traveling stranger on his way without food and so he resorted to highway robbery. In this case, Hirsch says, the slayer is guiltless and the blameworthy ones are the officials who failed to exercise Jewish communal duty.

Child Trauma

With this background in mind, here is information from the DC Children’s Law Center on factors contributing to child trauma:

  • One in four District of Columbia school-age children lives in poverty – which is defined as living on less than $24,000 for a family of four.
  • Over 4000 public school students were homeless in the 2013-2014 school year.
  • Adult incarceration is higher among DC residents than anywhere else in the country, leaving many children without one or more of their parents.
  • In DC, forty percent of high school students reported hearing or seeing violence in the previous year. This is far higher in some neighborhoods where gunshots and violent crime are constants.
  • — learn more in this report published in June 2015

This Summer in DC

photo: Treona Kelty

photo: Treona Kelty

A friend who ran two day camps in Southeast housing projects this summer had to help children cope with shootings in both locations. Heartbreaking, but not unusual occurrences there. She also returned to her office, after letting camp out early one day, to find a bullet hole in her window and a bullet lodged in the wall behind her desk.

Other friends are coping as we speak this morning (Temple Micah, August 22) with the aftermath of two juveniles shooting at one another on Tuesday, resulting in serious injuries to both boys and the death of the younger one’s mother. I witnessed the shooting death of a 21-year-old in another neighborhood on the same day, as did many people who were on that street, just going about their business, or inside the church while Amari Jenkins was shot outside.

A number of children witnessed the aftermath of both incidents. I know little about the third shooting of that same day. (All readers are encouraged to #SayThisName for each individual lost to homicide in DC; news stories about the high murder rate in DC and other US cities abound.)

A guest on the Education Town Hall, a weekly radio program I help organize, spoke on August 20 of how an annual back-to-school picnic he arranges now provides children with first-aid kits. Why would that be a back-to-school supply? Because, he says, these kids live in a war zone, and we need to acknowledge it.

Blameworthy Elders?

The history and sociology of how this reality developed is too complex for this dvar Torah. But I think the Torah portion is asking us to consider our communal responsibility for helping children cope with situations that endanger them, lest we become as blameworthy as the elders in Hirsch’s hypothetical town.

Early childhood trauma affects the way the brain develops, and trauma in older children makes it difficult, if not impossible, for students to learn, often appearing in attention and behavioral problems in the classroom. The eventual result, according experts, is that trauma is transmitted, through further violence in many cases, if young people are not helped to transform it.

Taking positive action is important in recovering from the helplessness of a traumatic event, according to psychologists. I continue to seek ways to turn the energy of the tragedy I witnessed into something healing. Several possible courses of action, to help us take positive steps amidst this chaos, are shared here “Prayer, Advocacy, and #RippleEffect.”

Murder Pollutes

Returning to the Red Heifer…

The Plaut commentary focuses on the practicality of the ritual, suggesting that it would attract so much attention as to enhance a sense of communal responsibility and help ensure that the murderer is apprehended.

The 15th Century Portuguese commentator, Abarbanel, said the shock value of the ritual would prevent people from forgetting the murder and keep alive the search for the offender.

SayThisNameHowever, the Mishnah (redacted around 200 CE) reports that the Red Heifer ritual had already ceased when crimes of murder multiplied to such a degree that the ritual was no longer feasible. I didn’t have the heart to read what Sanhedrin says about this (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 27b and forward), and I cannot imagine what the ancient Rabbis would make of DC and other major US cities today.

But it’s clear that we need some new approaches. And I’ve been thinking about that double “tzedek” in this week’s “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” [“Justice, Justice you shall pursue] (Deut 16:20).

Toward a New Approach

Justice, justice you shall pursue”

Efforts like the #RippleEffect Campaign and Playing for Change Day are no expiation for murder, of course, and they’re no substitute for direct, head-on, immediate action in pursuit of justice. But we’re not all in a position to effectively take up that work —

The direct approach accounts for only the first “justice” in “justice, justice you shall pursue.” I suggest that the second “justice” calls for something completely different.

“Justice, justice you shall pursue”

Maybe a large public ritual PFC Day — one based on music, not blood — can capture a 21st Century world’s attention, to inspire some introspection and improvements, launch some creative energy and community building.

RippleOne of the reasons given for setting up judges at all the gates — at the start of this week’s Torah portion — is to ensure that justice enters into daily life in every location, a little like those ripples of kindness beginning from a variety of centers.

I also know that those of us facing the constant stress and grief of life today in some parts of the District — and what I experience is minor compared to what many others face — need the joy and release and uplifting power of music now more than ever.

Sometimes I image that music is the conduit the prophet Amos had in mind when he said that justice should roll down — or “well up” — like waters (Amos 5:24; see also below). Like water, music can exert its power with flexibility, perhaps in torrents or flood, perhaps through softer means, carrying us great distances, operating in ways we easily sense, and in ways below the surface and beyond our control that help bring transformation.

Stains and Ripples

The ritual of the Red Heifer warned the People that shrugging or hoping someone else would step up was not an option, reminded the elders that the conditions of their town could leave innocent blood on their hands.

This portion tells us that murdered blood pollutes the land and requires atonement.

I have watched a young man’s blood power-washed off concrete, and I can tell you the stain is still there.

We’re going to need some serious creative collective strength to address all the stains from all the murders in this town — and all the youth left to deal with what their elders should be managing.

Power washing doesn’t work.
Force doesn’t work.
More blood won’t work.
We need a new approach. For, now —

…Let there be songs to fill the air

Ripple in still water
When there is no pebble tossed
Nor wind to blow

Reach out your hand if your cup be empty
If your cup is full may it be again
Let it be known there is a fountain
That was not made by the hands of men
Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead, 1970)

 

NOTE: Amos, Water, and Justice
I confess that I largely know the quote “until justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a might stream,” from its use by Martin Luther King and, consequently, in Maya Lin’s Civil Rights Memorial.

How fascinating and disconcerting, in this context, then, to be reminded just now of what Amos says about music —

Amos 5:כא שָׂנֵאתִי מָאַסְתִּי, חַגֵּיכֶם; וְלֹא אָרִיחַ, בְּעַצְּרֹתֵיכֶם. 21 I hate, I despise your feasts, and I will take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
כב כִּי אִם-תַּעֲלוּ-לִי עֹלוֹת וּמִנְחֹתֵיכֶם, לֹא אֶרְצֶה; וְשֶׁלֶם מְרִיאֵיכֶם, לֹא אַבִּיט. 22 Yea, though ye offer me burnt-offerings and your meal-offerings, I will not accept them; neither will I regard the peace-offerings of your fat beasts.
כג הָסֵר מֵעָלַי, הֲמוֹן שִׁרֶיךָ; וְזִמְרַת נְבָלֶיךָ, לֹא אֶשְׁמָע. 23 Take thou away from Me the noise of thy songs; and let Me not hear the melody of thy psalteries.
כד וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן. 24 But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

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Morning: Blessing, with Echo of Gunshots

How lovely are these tents!
not far from housing that has seen better days
and housing that has seen too many awful ones.

I love the place of Your house, reached through streets
collecting cigarette butts, the odd chicken wing, echoes of homicide.

Through Your abundant love, I enter Your house,
where these peaceful walls remind us: “If I am for myself alone, what am I?”
while a few miles away homes reel from gunshots and mourning,
makeshift memorials of teddy bears and candles pooled with tears and rain.
Meetings and vigils and “let this be the last.”

My prayer seeks a favorable time –
Does joy come in the morning, where weeping has not tarried for the night?
Can we dance together, if we have not yet joined in lament?

You answer with your saving truth:
Your glory’s dwelling-place spans mountain top and pit.
We are shaken and we stand firm.
Remove our sackcloth and dress us to praise You, Source of Healing and Help.

— Virginia Spatz, August 21, 2015

See Mah Tovu [How lovely are your tents] and Psalm 30 in the early morning prayers

…weeping may tarry for the night, but joy cometh in the morning.
…When I was carefree, I thought, “I shall never be shaken.”…
LORD, when I enjoyed your favor, You made me stand firm as a mighty mountain; when You hid Your face, I was terrified….
You turned my lament into dancing;
You removed my sackcloth and girded me with joy

See also, “Prayer Warm Up” and handout on Psalm 30

Stragglers on the Road Away from Bondage

Remarks before Mourners’ Kaddish, Temple Micah (DC)
Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath (March 13-16, 2014)

Hadiya Z. Pendleton lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, my hometown, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live. She liked Fig Newtons, my favorite snack when I was a teenager. She and I both visited Washington, DC, while still in high school — I was part of Washington Workshops Congressional Seminars, and she performed in Obama’s Inaugural parade. Both of us participated in local anti-crime initiatives: “Operation Whistle Stop” in my case; and a “Think Smart” anti-gang video in hers.

“Hadiya Pendleton was me, and I was her,” Michelle Obama said last April. “But I got to grow up, and go to Princeton and Harvard Law School, and have a career and a family and the most blessed life I could ever imagine. And Hadiya? Oh, we know that story….”

Hadiya Pendleton was gunned down on January 29, 2013, shot to death in a public park because, from the back, she resembled someone associated with a gang. Hadiya never reached her 16th birthday, which would have been June 2, 2013.

While there are obvious differences between my life and both Hadiya Pendleton’s and Michelle Obama’s, my reaction to Hadiya’s death was similar to Mrs. Obama’s. She rightly points out how just a few urban blocks can mean the difference between a life rich in possibility and one circumscribed by need and loss. I would add that we cannot allow those few blocks – or even a few miles – to insulate us from our neighbors’ grief.

Since last January, the District of Columbia has lost ten teenagers to gunshots, but I do not usually hear their names read from this bima [podium]. I know many who mourn for young people killed on DC streets, but my own children graduated high school without losing an immediate friend to that plague, and neither child remembers the frequent gunshots of their toddler years, so they grew up without that fear. The relative segregation of our lives mean that many of us here today are not directly touched by the violence that robs too many of our neighbors of childhoods. But Judaism forbids us from standing idly by the blood of a sister. And Shabbat Zachor [Remember!], just before Purim, calls us to remember the threat of Amalek, who attacked the hungry, weary stragglers among the Israelites in the desert (Deut. 25:17-19).

In Chicago, DC, and other cities, whole neighborhoods like Hadiya’s have become stragglers on the road out of bondage, filled with youth who are hungry and weary and, all too often, vulnerable to attack. Until all teens like Hadiya can safely hang out in the local parks, we have failed to blot out the name of Amalek.

Hadiya’s life teaches how much can be packed into just a few years. Her death reminds us of the fragility of life at any age, but also of the duty of elders to protect our youth. So, last year, I acknowledged Hadiya Pendleton as my teacher and recited mourners’ kaddish for her. In consultation with Rabbi Lederman, I chose to speak about this Fig-Newton-loving, civic-minded young woman today (March 15), instead of on her yahrzeit which passed a few weeks ago. We thought that it would particularly honor her memory to speak her name on a Shabbat set aside for Gun Violence Prevention.

May the memory of Hadiya Pendleton be for a blessing, and may that blessing include a renewed commitment to make our cities safe places where all young people can thrive.

Honoring a Teacher: Hadiya Pendleton

Hadiya Z. Pendleton liked Fig Newtons and performed in a drill team that participated in Obama’s 2013 Inaugural parade. She lived in the Kenwood neighborhood of Chicago, not far from where I lived for several years and where friends still live, not far from the Obama family home. She never reached her 16th birthday, which would have been on June 2. She was gunned down on January 29 [2013], in a public park at 45th & Drexel, apparently caught in a gang-related shooting.
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