The final words of Psalm 150, and thus, the entire Book of Psalms are:
Kol HaNeshamah Tehallelyah, Hallelujah.
With every breath of life, you shall praise the Divine. Hallelujah!
The Book of Psalms concludes with this charge, but this verse also serves as a reminder that every breath of life, every time we breathe, we need to be reminded of God’s presence, God’s majesty, and the everyday miracles of life. When we stop breathing, when someone takes that life away from us, then God’s presence fades as we fade away. And taking that life away, stopping that breathing, is a chillul Hashem, not just the transgression of taking another life, be it intentional or accidental but truly a desecration of God.
It is not a coincidence that in Hebrew, the words for breath and soul (neshama) are the same. To cause someone to stop breathing does not only kill them, but it destroys their soul. As it says in the Book of Job, “Remember, all life is but a breath.”
The haunting last words of Eric Garner linger:
I can’t breathe.
And the reality of a police officer killing another — even if it was accidental — by using unnecessary force (not to mention a chokehold that the NYPD does not permit) when Garner was accused of simply a petty crime (selling untaxed cigarettes) is a troubling reality that cannot continue.
The voices for racial equality were outraged by the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson by the Ferguson Grand Jury. The officer killed an unarmed black teenager and was not indicted. Yet, there were conflicting witness accounts and forensic analysis that suggested Michael Brown may have had a physical altercation with the officer. There was no video to prove what happened. If only there was video.
Yet, it seems that video doesn’t matter. When Eric Garner was killed by a police officer in Staten Island on July 17, 2014, an eyewitness videoed the entire altercation. Still no indictment. The actions by these officers, a result of broken windows theory which targets minorities, and specifically black men, are unacceptable. The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was an attempt by social media users to participate in hashtag activism. But activism cannot be limited to Twitter and Facebook.
In Mesechet Yevamot 87b, the Talmud teaches that silence equals consent. Being silent in the face of such brutality is accepting it as norm. Our responsibility then as a Jewish community and our obligation is to be speaking out for Eric Garner, who can no longer speak for himself. The Jewish community has dealt with oppression and discrimination in our history. Yet, we also acknowledge that we are privileged. I am white. I am male. I am straight. I am not discriminated against in many parts of the country, or even in my own backyard, in the way others are. All the more so, it is my responsibility, and it is our responsibility, to stand up for those who are being discriminated against. It is our responsibility to speak up for justice.
I read tonight that there was a peaceful action and protest tonight among Manhattan’s Upper West Side Jewish community, organized by T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. Rabbis within the peaceful protest were arrested this evening as well. I am proud that New York’s Jewish community has not remained silent. I am proud that the community understands that #BlackLivesMatter.
My hope and prayer is that the Jewish community as a whole, and all communities, will understand the sanctity of each life as well. I pray that we will all come to understand that we are all responsible for one another. We are all responsible to protect each other. We are our brothers’ keepers.
Let us take deep breaths and breathe new life into a society that desperately needs change, to breathe new life into a justice system suffering from systematic racism. We need to breathe. Let us recognize that every breath, every soul is precious. And let us not remain silent, for all those who were unjustly taken from this world.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky