Last week I spoke about those we see and those we don’t. This weeks Parsha seems to continue this theme with a very relevant and significant statement on our lives today. The focal point of this weeks portion is the somewhat odd ceremony that the Israelites enact upon their arrival in the holy land. It’s a coming of age ceremony for the nomadic Israelites that warns them of the dos and don’ts in their new land.
Commentators recognized a theme; the warnings seem to all regard transgressions that one does “Be’se-ter” — in hiding. But Iben Ezra a commentator of the 11th-century golden era of Spain challenges this notion. He noticed that the punishments only seem to parallel some of the commandments, not all of them. More importantly, these commandments can not be described as being done in hiding. How can it be that leading the blind astray, being dishonest to the stranger, or being unjust with the widow and orphan, be “In hiding”? They all involve another person.
Armed with this knowledge, he goes back to the text to see if these commandments have something else in common. Iben Ezra then teaches that “In hiding” is used in the greater context of the word, and includes those who are hidden from society. “She’ein lahem ozer” — that they do not have someone to help them.
If a judge were to rule unjustly in a case between two civilians of privilege, her transgression would soon be publicly known. But when a judge rules unjustly with an orphan or widow, or in terms of my social circles — A person of colour, a Palestinian, or any other minority — no one would care enough to make a big deal out of it. Iben Ezra then concludes that because humanity may not care for those who are not seen, God assures us that she cares and will seek their justice.
This is not a new, a few weeks ago, we came across a similar notion. Deuteronomy 24:14 warns us not to oppress the poor and the strangers that dwell in our lands. God continues, and warns that if this ever were to come to past, and they were to cry out at night, the merciful one would hear that cry, sin would be placed on our heads and God would claim their vengeance and justice.
When I first started my way in the interfaith world, I had a very warped sense of what our justice system was like. I had a lot of trust in the various branches of government, I knew they were not perfect, but I assumed that the imperfections were the exception to the rule.
At one point I started working with youth, and my teen staff included several Palestinian boys who taught me more about the conflict in the first few months of working with them, then I had learned my entire life. Of this, they say — ומתלמידי יותר מכולם — I have learned most from my students.
One day, Yusef (not his real name) was late for a program, I called to see what was going on.
“I can’t talk,” He said almost in a whisper — “The police are integrating me.”
“Put me on with them,” I asked.
At first, he refused; he was nervous and didn’t want me to make things worse. I promised that I would be thinking only of him and was not going to try and make a point — a widespread phenomenon among left-wing activists. Often, they don’t think of the individual Palestinian’s best interest and argue with the law Israeli to Israeli. It rarely has the intended effects and only serves to make the situation worse for the Palestinian individual involved. After much coaxing, he agreed and passed on the phone.
“Hi, this is Carmiel, I am Yusef’s group leader” — I said in the most Israeli fashion possible. “Can you tell me why you stopped him?
“Are you Israeli?” The policeman asked,
“You mean Jewish? Yes, I am.”
“Oh” — I could hear him relax a bit.
“Listen, brother; I need him here with me,” I spoke with familiarity. “He is supposed to run a program — why did you stop him?”
“Because he was running towards the train.”
I held my breath to control my emotions. Then in the calmest voice, I could procure,
“That’s because he is late for the program and should have been here half an hour ago!”
“Fine, we’re letting him go.” Came the reply on the other side.
“Thank you brother, Take my number down if you need to follow up.”
After the program, I pulled Yusef aside to see how he was doing. He laughed at my genuine concern.
“Carmiel, this happens to me almost every time I leave the house.”
I thought he was exaggerating, but as the year went on, I began to realize that his statement ran true. If you are a young Arab man in Jerusalem, then you are going to get pulled over and frisked by the police at least two to three times a week. It doesn’t matter if you are the kindest, most peace-loving soul ever.
As time went by, and I began to comprehend just how bad it was, I also started noticing it more around me. It’s an odd thing, sometimes something can be right in front of you, and you never see it. Then it’s brought to your attention, and you can’t stop seeing it. Suddenly I noticed how often the police detained the Arab population around me, and it started to irk me.
On a few accounts, I walked over and playing stupid — handed them my id card. When they would ask why, I would say innocently, “Oh, I thought you were stopping everyone”, and this would lead into a conversation about racial profiling, while the entire time I pretend to be clueless. But more often, I stop nearby, make eye contact with the police, and make clear that I am watching their interactions with the young man, my phone ready at hand. I can not share in words how angry these ‘stop and frisks’ make me. They don’t play any security role of note; they exist to serve as a reminder to the Arab public — Don’t forget who is Master and who is Slave. If I ever became Mayor of this city, this ugly practice would be the first thing out the door.
Over the last few weeks, I couldn’t help think of the many who don’t find justice in our justice system, not necessarily due to malintent, but rather for the social blindness that plagues us all. This Parsha foresaw a reality like this for as previously mentioned, every generation’s ethical standing is challenged by those they can not see. Therefore, on mount Gerizim, just outside of Nablus, God warns us — Even when others don’t see you act or don’t care for your transgression, it doesn’t mean you are not guilty!
Let us be thankful for those we can now see. I don’t know if it was Corona that made us more aware of others or just a general sentiment from a growing number of citizens sick and tired of their leaders racist and dividing rhetoric. But as I read through this Parsha, I find myself praying that the coming new Jewish Year, be one of seeing. One where we can finally open our hearts to others, to the strangers among us. And I pray that we all go to the voting booth this year, and make it happen. Words of Torah are admirable, but they are meaningless if not put to action. When you go and vote, I pray you vote for kindness, for compassion and for a nationwide community of communities that do not fear the hard work of learning how to see others.