Eric Garner, Jacob And Esau: The Ethics Of Confrontation


Editor’s Note: Following is a copy of the sermon Rabbi Weiss delivered at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale on Dec. 6, Parshat Vayishlach:

“I can’t breathe.”

That’s the mantra we’re hearing all over the city.

I’m not a police officer, or in law enforcement, or a criminal lawyer, or a criminal judge. But like many here, I have seen the video of Eric Garner being taken down by several officers.  One has his arms around Mr. Garner’s neck, while another is forcefully pressing his head against the pavement.  Over and over, Mr. Garner calls out, “I can’t breathe.”  Although the cops were then not in danger, none called out for the excessive force to stop.  Soon, Eric Garner was dead. Something went totally wrong. You don’t deserve to die for selling loose cigarettes or resisting arrest.

Our Torah in this week’s portion talks about the ethics of confrontation.

When Yaakov prepares to meet Esav the Torah describes Yaakov’s mental state.

Va’yirah Yaakov me’od va’yeitzer lo.

Yaakov was fearful and distressed. (Genesis 32:8)

Why both verbs – va’yirah and va’yeitzer?

Says the midrash: va’yirah – He was afraid lest he be killed.

Va’yeitzer – He was distressed lest he kill others.

In other words, Yaakov was not only concerned for his life but for taking life.

This is the mark of a good person, a good soldier, a good police officer.

Not only to be concerned for one’s life but for the other’s life. This teaching is predicated on the most basic message of Torah – the message that all people are created betzelem Elohim – in the image of God.

And this is the first point I’d like to make, from the perspective of the victim. If Eric Garner was killed unnecessarily – in violation of the va’yeitzer lo idea – it’s something all of us should feel deeply. When one’s tzelem Elohim is harmed, all tzelem Elohims are harmed.

Which brings me to my second point, from the perspective of the perpetrator. Although I’ve been arrested here in NY close to 40 times as I’ve engaged in non-violent civil disobedience over the years on behalf of Jewish causes – I’m a big supporter, a big, big fan of NYC police. I believe, I know, they risk their lives every day for us.  They are NYC’s finest. The vast majority understand the message of va’yeitzer lo.

That’s why I’m reluctant to join the demonstrations here in NY in the wake of the non-indictment. Too often these protests send a message that NYC police should be collectively condemned – condemned across the board. I strongly disagree with that position.

But there are aberrations.  There are cops who use their power abusively. I know this from personal experience. And when there are aberrations we must all speak out; it’s not the problem of one community but of all communities.

In a similar vein, I do not believe that the non-indictment in the Eric Garner case means that the justice system as a whole has failed. Here, in the United States, we are blessed with one of the greatest legal systems in the world.

But there are aberrations. And when this occurs, we have a sacred responsibility to raise a voice of moral conscience – as long as we do so peacefully.

The Jewish community has adopted this modus operandi – this method of operation.  Think for a moment about the Yankele Rosenbaum case. Yankele was murdered in the Crown Heights Riots of August 1991, riots that former Mayor Ed Koch called “a pogrom.”  His killer, Lemrick Nelson, was found not guilty.

The night of the acquittal I joined Chabad rabbis as we closed down part of the Brooklyn Bridge, marching across until we reached City Hall.  We were not protesting against the legal system as a whole, but the breakdown of the system in this particular case.

Our protest bore fruit. Federal charges were brought against Nelson, and he was convicted of violating Yankele’s civil rights in the murder, and sentenced to 10 years.

A third point: Many have cast the problem of police brutality as bias against African Americans. While I strongly reject the assertion that the racially diverse NYPD is systematically racist, we must pay close attention to the voices of our African American sisters and brothers and hear their experiences and pain. There are deep wounds of racism in our country and we all have work to do to heal them.

But my sense is that the issue of abuse of power transcends any one community or race. Think for a moment of another case, a less known case of Gidone Busch – a white Orthodox Jew suffering from mental illness.

In 1999 he was swinging a hammer wildly in Boro Park. Cops surrounded him. Although he was clearly mentally troubled – instead of backing off and calming him down, or using mace or tasering him – the police opened fire, killing him. I felt then, as I feel now that this was a terrible abuse of power.

The Boro Park community was incensed. So was I. I did my little share by visiting Gidone’s parents leading a prayer service in their home during shiva.  I told them they were not alone, but in too many ways they were. Only some in the Jewish community stood with them. We demanded justice – but it never came as the cops involved were not indicted.

Although Yaakov feels fearful and distressed, something good emerges from his confrontation with Esav. They embrace, and become, as the Torah describes, more shalem – more whole.

This is a difficult time, but please join me in the prayer, the deep prayer, that from brokenness will come wholeness.  Like the story of Amadou Diallo.  Unarmed, Diallo was killed, shot 41 times by cops who thought his wallet was a gun. That night, together with Rabbi Aaron Frank I visited Diallo’s parents, who were in deep, deep mourning.

A year later, as the verdict was about to be announced – a verdict that acquitted the cops – there was concern for community peace right here in the Bronx. Clergy gathered near the spot just a few miles from our Bayit (the Hebrew of Riverdale) where Amadou was killed.  Each offered a few words of prayer. I spoke last.  Instead of speaking I sang Shlomo Carlebach’s “because of my brothers/sisters and friends, please let me sing, please let me say, peace to you.  This is the house, the house of the Lord, I wish the best for you.”

It was then that I met a person who became a “brother,” Reverend Roger Hambrick of the Green Pastures Church.  What emerged from the brink was a deep friendship between our communities, a friendship that goes beyond our joining together in song on Martin Luther King Day to commemorate Dr. King’s legacy. Yes, from brokenness we became more whole.

And we can become more whole if – aside from questioning each other, aside from pointing fingers at each other – we humbly turn inward and be self-reflective. Each of us should consider thinking about the questions we raised today:

What is our belief concerning tzelem Elohim? Do we view, as the Torah insists, that every human being – regardless of race – is of infinite and endless value. When one person’s rights are violated, do we all, on a very personal level, feel violated?

How do we raise concerns with the police, without God forbid condemning and vilifying the community of law enforcers who put their lives on the line for all of us every day?

And how do we use our authority when we have power in our professional lives; in our personal lives? Do we abuse power or ethicize power?

The issues here in New York and across America are great. I bless you, and ask you to bless me that we meet the challenge of our community, inspired by the glorious and holy words of the Torah, tzedek tzedek tirdof. (Deuteronomy 16:20)  This does not only mean “justice, justice you shall pursue” but even more importantly, “justice you shall justly pursue.”

Rabbi Avi Weiss is senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale – the Bayit, and co-founder of the Modern Orthodox rabbinical organization, the International Rabbinic Fellowship (IRF).