That Which Plagues Us

Last week, I watched the CNN Town Hall conversation with President Obama on gun violence in America. More so than by any executive action that Obama made a reality, and more so than by any statement the President made, I was impacted by the stories of two members of the audience. Their realities were heart-wrenching. For these two individuals gun violence wasn’t about mass shootings in schools or cinemas or office buildings. Gun violence was everyday life.

The first was Father Michael Pfleger, a white, Roman Catholic priest, whose parrish is on the south side of Chicago, where he said he has buried hundreds of congregants, hundreds of victims of gun violence. He reminded the President – and the country – about the dangers that his congregants, so many young black men and women in the inner city of Chicago, face every day, and the reality of inequality that still exists that is the root cause of such violence. The second person was Tre Bosley, a young black teenager from Chicago, who spoke about his brother Terrell who was murdered in Chicago ten years ago at the age of 18 while in a church parking lot. Tre challenged the President to understand what he and his peers face daily, surrounded by gun violence and poverty. He said that he cannot look into the future and imagine what his life will be like. His peers don’t know if they’ll be alive years from now. They live week to week, day to day.

And the statistics support his fears. The Chicago Tribune keeps a running list of how many people were shot in the city. And since January 1st of this year, in seventeen days, 148 people have been shot in Chicago. 148! In two weeks. That is approximately nine shootings a day! In our own backyard, there are similar fears. While there has been a decline in state-wide violence, the opposite is true in Newark. Shootings surged in Newark in 2015, up almost 20% from the prior year. For too many young children this fear is a reality.

Too many young children fear that Hadiya Pendleton’s fate will be their fate. Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old girl, who was murdered on a playground in Chicago in 2013. She and her friends were walking home from school and it started pouring rain. They took over under the slides and swing sets. She was shot and killed by two men who thought that she and her friends, gathering together, looking for shelter and safety in the rain were a rival gang. A week earlier, she performed at the President’s second inauguration. And then she was murdered by a bullet.

This past Shabbat, we read the most disturbing part of the Exodus narrative. While frogs, cattle disease, lice, and hail, were inconveniences, the tenth and final plague sent an entire nation into mourning.

God said:

Toward midnight I will go forth among the Egyptians and every first born in the land of Egypt shall die, from the first born of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the first-born of the slave girl who is behind the millstones; and all the first-born of the cattle. And there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again. (Ex. 11:4-6)

A mournful cry was heard among all of Egypt. What was it about the tenth plague that did it? Why was that the straw that broke the camel’s back? One could argue that Pharaoh deserved to be punished for his actions, as did his taskmasters, courtiers, and government officials. And while they may’ve suffered from grief, they survived. It was the firstborns, their children, so young and innocent, that were killed. Seeing them taken from the world, with their full lives ahead of them is what did it. That is what finally caused Pharaoh to realize something needed to change.

This society, where young boys and girls in inner cities don’t feel safe, and may be shot on a playground is on us. We are experiencing Makat Bechorot, that plague of the death of our innocent children. We must acknowledge the root cause of such violence: the systemic racist reality that still exists in our culture, that we caused with white flight, the creation of urban ghettoes, not to mention a broken windows policy of policing, and a criminal justice system to is harsher on minorities and the impoverished. We could spend years talking about the reality that exists – and the cause of that reality. Regardless of the root cause, we must acknowledge that our hearts remain hardened like Pharaoh’s heart. Or better said, our hearts remain apathetic. Our hearts remain complacent. Our hearts have come to accept this reality.

Dr. King often spoke about the fierce urgency of now. To rid ourselves of our hardened hearts, of our apathetic souls, and change society. Now is the time to end this plague of gun violence that effects so many innocent children.

What I find so troubling about Parashat Bo, is that while all the Egyptians, including the innocent bystanders, suffered and watched the bloodshed, witnessed the angel of death murdering their firstborns, the Israelites were protected. The Israelites were safe.

God said:

When I see the blood on the doorpost I will protect you so that no plague destroy you. (Ex. 12:13)

The Israelites tucked their children in at night and knew that they would wake up the next morning safe and sound. They knew that they their neighbors were suffering, but they were fine. And so it continues. This plague continues. Death. Loss. Too many innocent victims. And we – distant and removed from it all – allow the plague to passover us.

Rabbi Daniel Burg serves as rabbi of Beth Am in the Reservoir Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, one of the few synagogues to remain in the city of Baltimore, instead of moving to the suburbs like much of the Jewish community did decades ago. He speaks of two neighborhoods in the city: Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived, and Roland Park, the first planned suburb in North America. Beth Am is between these two neighborhoods, these two neighborhoods which are roughly three miles apart. He asked his community if they knew the difference between the life expectancy in Roland Park and Sandtown-Winchester. The answer: fifteen years. Statistically speaking, one who lives in the suburbs of Roland Park with the fine supermarkets and superb schools will live for fifteen more years than those who live in the poverty stricken neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. These two neighborhoods are right down the street from each other, but one is plagued be the angel of death and the other is protected by the sacrifical lamb. The society that we live in allows this plague to pass over some of us and attack others.

But no more. What will it take for us to end this plague? What will it take for us to create and build a safer society for all of God’s children? We must put an end to this plague. We must metaphorically spread the blood of the pascal lamb upon all of our doorposts, so that poverty, injustice, and inequality, and the fear and violence that is often the result, will pass over all of us. May it be so.

-Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky

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