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Indifferent No More!

We offer prayers of strength and healing to our fellow Americans who are only beginning to survey the devastation from Hurricane Laura.

This week we read, Ki Tetzei, the Torah portion containing the most commandments. According to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, 72 mitzvot can be discerned from this week’s verses. They offer detailed instructions for how to reach out to others, of how we might best express our concern for other human beings. These rules are about inculcating the value of compassion for our neighbors.

This principle is illustrated by one example: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow… so too you shall do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22) The tradition adds several exclamation points to this commandment when it rules that anyone who finds a lost object or animal and does not try to return it to its rightful owner is considered a thief.

The wisdom is clear. If, when finding an object, we say not, “Look what I found!” but instead ask, “To whom does this belong?” we begin to fashion a wider circle of concern. Our failures to correct injustices, whether they be small or large, begins with our indifference. How do we begin to turn toward others and not away?

This week we were confronted by the image of a black man shot by police officers. While the specifics of this case remain obscured, we join in offering prayers for Jacob Blake’s recovery. We pray that his Milwaukee home might soon find peace. We pray for strength in behalf of those who raise their voices in protest. One fact remains startlingly clear. Black men, and women, are far more likely to suffer violent deaths at the hands of police than their white neighbors. I have known this truth for some time, but I feel as if I have only begun to see it this summer.

I shall not remain indifferent.

Do the many objects adorning my home, that bring me a measure of comfort and peace, really belong to me or are they better meant to be shared with others? Does my continued silence, and the seemingly petty efforts to correct past failings, constitute the thievery our tradition admonishes us against?

I shall not remain indifferent.

I desperately want to look away. This is not the America I know. This is not the America I love. But as I am learning more and more this is the America my neighbors know. This is the America they find difficult to love. My dream is tarnished by their pain.

I turn to the wisdom of our tradition. But even Moses Maimonides is failing me. And so, I turn to other voices.

Maya Angelou, the American poet and civil rights activist writes in her incomparable poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth”:

…We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

The miraculous is the neighbor I wish to ignore. I can no longer turn away. I must not turn aside. Their pain must become my pain.

Do not remain indifferent.