New moon is coming

Mishpatim: the angry ox and the Chapel Hill shooting

Here's the brief d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Raging-bull-attacking-charging-woodcut-illustration-angry-facing-front-snorting-done-retro-style-32193042In this week's Torah portion we receive a wealth of ethical commandments.

For instance: When an ox gores someone to death, kill the ox, but don't punish its owner. But, if the ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner knows that but fails to guard it, and it gores someone to death -- then punish its owner, because the person who had responsibility failed to act.

I've read this verse many times before. But this year I couldn't help reading it through the lens of the news story I've been following this week.

A few days ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a man entered the apartment of two neighbors and shot the couple and the woman's younger sister in the head, execution-style. He later turned himself in and claimed that he killed them over a parking dispute.

The three young people who were murdered were Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, aged 23, 21, and 19. Deah and Yusor were newlyweds, married in December. They were dentistry students who donated their dental expertise to the local homeless community, taught kids about dental hygiene at the local library in their spare time, and raised money and dental supplies to take to Turkey so they could help Syrian regufees. Razan was a college kid, a student of architecture and environmental design. All three of them were pillars of their community. Deah, Yusor, and Razan were Muslim.

This act would be atrocious no matter who the victims were. But it is extra-heartbreaking to me because they were so young, and so idealistic, and so full of life.

The man who killed them was a known anti-theist -- not merely an atheist, but someone who loathed religion. He had posted nasty anti-Muslim language on Facebook. He had harassed these victims before. The young married woman had told her father, "He hates us because of who we are."

What he did was beastly. And when I read the verses about the ox who gores someone to death, I think of this man who killed three innocent souls for reasons I cannot begin to fathom.

And then I wonder: who is responsible for the behavior of the ox? In the Torah, the answer is clear: its owner, if that owner had any suspicion that the ox would behave in such a way.

In Torah, it is also clear that we are to regard ourselves as our brothers' keepers. We are responsible for each other. Torah calls us to guide each other in lives of righteousness and to rebuke each other when needed. Granted, Torah is speaking in terms of the "us" of the children of Israel, the Jewish community. Torah presumes that Jews are obligated to take care of Jews.

But today our world is more pluralistic. We're part not only of the Jewish community, but also the American community. And many of us have connections to other religious communities, through marriage or friendship or affinity. In today's paradigm, Torah might teach that we all have a civic obligation to each other.

American culture, media, and stereotypes devalue the lives of Muslims and the lives of people of color. This happens in a million tiny ways and it is constant and omnipresent. I fear that this persistent devaluing of these lives teaches us, subconsciously, that these lives have lesser value.

I don't know whether this massacre could have been prevented. But I believe that an American culture of fear and suspicion of Muslims contributed to this killer's willingness to shoot these three young Americans in the head in their own home. And I believe that if we don't act to change our nation's culture, there will be more killings like this one -- and all of us who sat idly by will be the ox owner who could have stopped the ox.

How can we change the culture of our entire nation? It's too big a task. But we can begin by teaching our children that we value diversity. We can teach them that the great thing about a world filled with people who look, dress, or worship differently than we do is that we can learn from and about each other -- we don't need to be afraid of each other.

We can begin by educating ourselves about the experiences of other people and other communities in this country. We can begin by expanding the circle of people about whom we care.

One of the reasons I care so much about this story is that people in my life care about it. On Wednesday morning as the news was breaking, I was home sick with a virus, and was in bed with my iPad. I watched, on Twitter, as my Muslim friends grieved these killings. I learned about the victims. I read Muslim responses to the awful news. My heart went out to my friends, and by extension to their whole community.

I came to care deeply about this story because people who are important to me cared about it. People with whom I have shared meals, prayer, conversation, togetherness. These killings impacted them, and because I feel connected with them, the killings impacted me.

Many of us in this room have that kind of relationship with Israel: we know people there, or we have family there, or we've visited there, or we feel connected with our fellow Jews there. So we pay attention to the news from there, and when there is death there we grieve. My husband Ethan has that relationship with Ghana: he's lived there, he has a deep network of community there, and because he cares deeply about West Africa, he's emotionally invested in what happens there.

It's easier to care about something -- a person, a place, a community -- when you have a personal connection. How can we grow our personal connections with communities beyond our own, so that when something like this happens to someone in another religious community, we feel it too?

We can begin by striving to teach ourselves to respond to difference not with fear or anxiety, but with kindness and compassion. The verse most oft-repeated in Torah is "love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." For me, the place where this work always begins -- where it has to begin -- is with love.