Tuesday, July 14, 2020 -
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His mattress matters!

The coronavirus has been such an enormous, life-changing event. Together with much of the planet, we’ve been on lockdown, in quarantine. For so many if not most people, this cessation of life as we know it has been the moment of our time, the kind of tales people live to tell their grandchildren.

Not that anyone would obviously desire that, but seriously, how could corona be surpassed? The coronavirus was the story of 2020; perhaps even the story of a decade, or of a generation.

And yet, here we are, on another lockdown. A different kind of lockdown. Curfew. Rioters. Looters.

My phone is flashing. It’s emergency signal is alerting me to the new lockdown. Shops on the Upper West Side of Manhattan are boarding their store windows before they are ravaged. It will be scary to go outside.

Suddenly coronavirus has receded. Never mind, social distancing.

How did we get here?

I was on Facebook when suddenly a meme of George Floyd’s portrait appeared before my eyes. As I looked into his eyes I heard the words “I’m sorry” sound out in my head.

I truly am so sorry it has come to this.

My heart feels so sad. An innocent man was murdered in cold blood, but the story is no longer about him. In the name of exploiting this tragedy, these rioters have selfishly shifted and commandeered the narrative, to be about themselves.

The fury is frightening. Out of control rage is so scary. And indeed, the horror of George Floyd’s murder by a police officer, no less, is infuriating.

Protest it, fiercely, we must. Riot, not!

I have always carried an abiding gratitude for police and the work that they do in holding down the law and order of our society. I appreciate them and all they do tremendously, always glad at the opportunity to thank them when I pass them by patrolling. Calling out this murder for what it is does not negate the tireless protective work of the police force.

It feels like the coronavirus, while not a direct catalyst of the rioting, is the context of this escalating rioting and rage.

It created a vacuum. People have been locked up; for many, their life as they knew it disappeared before their eyes, replaced by true poverty. In New York City, coronavirus highlighted class divides ever so sharply. Many of the wealthy, flew the coop to their Hampton homes, or other vacation spots. The poor or even struggling middle class families stayed put, coping with coronavirus. Many of the poor paid the highest price.

None of this justifies the heartbreaking chaos that has been unleashed. The video of a homeless man’s mattress wildly set on fire on the street — his mattress matters! — with him crying out to the rioters and looters, “this is my home!” “You just burnt my home!” broke the heart on so many levels.

That burning had nothing to do with honoring the memory of George Floyd or of protesting his cold blooded murder. George Floyd is simply these rioters’ pretext. In fact, these riots only serve to dilute the cause we must all stand shoulder to shoulder on: human dignity, justice and opportunity for all, regardless of race!

Sometimes I wonder, imagine a world where we were all color blind, and simply saw one another for who we were, and nothing more: our humanity. What does skin pigmentation have anything to do with anything?

And yet it does. The black community has been wrestling with racism since time immemorial. One by one, each in our orbit, we must right that wrong.

With all the news cycle churning out stories about equal rights, etc., I was thrown back to my high school classroom and a Torah lesson that has stayed with me. It’s not directly related to this painful situation of racism; nonetheless, it popped into my head.

Rabbi Nathaniel Lauer was explaining the nature of Torah law and the ethics behind it. The example he focused on was tzedakah, charity, which incidentally, in Hebrew, is etymologically sourced in the word: justice.

Why does the Torah prescribe the obligation for charity? It is such a compassion-based mitzvah, he went on to say. Wouldn’t it be more meaningful and humane if charity were situation-based, like, say, someone walking down the street and bearing witness to a homeless man’s pain, triggering one to reach deep in his heart and thus pocket, giving generously, plus afforded the opportunity for an empathic human moment.

The problem with that, he went on to say, is: What if I am not moved by that person’s pain? What if I have no problem walking obliviously past him? Then where does that leave vulnerable people in society?

Kindness in Judaism is not emotion-based, he taught us. It’s legally regulated so as to ensure protection for all. Rights, he went on to develop the idea in other areas, is not a Jewish concept; rather, obligations to others is the Jewish concept. This is the essence of the commandments, of the mitzvot — that was the lesson he was passing along.

Fairly or unfairly, the reality is that we are not all equal. Everyone is at different stations in life, some more privileged than others. For people who are privileged in one way or another, noblesse oblige is the charge. While aspiring for equality is noble and idealistic, in terms of our obligation to care for one another, on a pragmatic level, equality really is irrelevant.

It comes down to our behavior toward the other.

The fact that black people walk around America scared for their lives has got to change. At the same time, rioters and anarchists opportunistically destroying society in the name of the tragedy of a black man’s death is unacceptable.

New York City is still on lockdown, but in spirit I march and protest with the thousands of peaceful protesters who have forcefully yet harmoniously rose to the very hard challenge of channeling the fear, rage and emotion.

I stand with the mayor of Atlanta. I stand with the mayor of Newark and the head of police in Newark. They have modeled this channeled rage.

After a week like this, I’m left thinking, maybe we should start imagining we are color blind, after all.

Copyright © 2020 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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