Entering the World of Hesed- Shabbat Message 12/12/14
Posted on 12/12/2014 @ 11:00 AM
Last night, for the first time since motzei Shabbat, I went to sleep without the sound of helicopters overhead. During the previous four evenings, hundreds of Bay Area residents in gathered in Berkeley, CA to protest both grand juries’ decisions not to indict the police officers who took the lives of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in New York City. Berkeley, most famous as the epicenter of the Free Speech Movement in the mid-sixties, came alive again with marching, singing, a heavy police presence, and, unfortunately, several incidents of vandalism and violence.
During the first night of protests, Jen and I decided to join the group of two-hundred people gathering just a few blocks away from our apartment. Since the end of the summer, we had been in constant conversation about our obligations as Jews, the privileges we enjoy as ‘white’ Americans, and a vision of the world we want to build for our future children to live in. Supporting these protests felt like a moment to express our values concretely and publicly. We arrived too late to join the protest itself--by the time we got there we saw hundreds of riot police being bused in and moving into formations from nearby city departments, created a perimeter around the protesters before they could block traffic to the I80 freeway. We stood quietly, waiting to see what would happen.
For the first time in my life, I was confronted with an overwhelming police presence. The line of officers in front of me, men and women, were in full riot gear--all of them holding either large black batons or ‘less-than-lethal’ weapons. Unable to join the protestors who had been kettled, many people around me began screaming obscenities, insults, and taunts towards the police. Like a flash, the words of the Mishna filled my head and heart:
כָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעְלִים עָלָיו כְּאִילּוּ אִיבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא
Kol ha’meabed nefesh achat, ma’alim alav k’ilu ibed olam maleh
Someone who destroys one life is considered to have destroyed an entire world
I began feeling radical empathy and compassion--hesed, but for whom? The Berkeley Police Department, who later that night would use tear gas and rubber bullets against peaceful protestors? The protestors, even those individuals who resorted to breaking windows of private businesses? The grand juries? Michael and Eric? Who? What was the Mishna trying to tell me?
During the nights since that first protest, I have preferred to check Twitter than put my shoes and hat on to stand outside with marching masses, wondering “I am not a politician, a sociologist, or activist. What will I do to create the world of hesed I want my children to live in?” I’m only being graced now, while I write this, with the beginning of an answer.
When I take lines like the one above from the Mishna, the countless calls to action in the Torah, or even simply the Panim Jewish Values Matrix or the goals of ‘IMPROVE’ seriously, I am creating the world of hesed. When I feel myself moving towards places others avoid, I am creating the world of hesed. When we ask our teens to confront and face hunger, or homelessness, or sick children and the elderly in local hospitals, we are asking them to create the world of hesed. But only when we see these acts as natural extensions of ourselves, as instincts rather than moments of inspiration, will we actually enter the world of hesed.
In my last days as a member of the BBYO staff community, I thank you for the opportunity to create and receive so much hesed, as a colleague, teacher, and friend. Thank you for the work you do, for each other, for all Israel, and all the world. Amen.
This Shabbat Message was written by outgoing Director of Jewish Enrichment for the Western Hub, Rabbi Zac Kamenetz.