TEE Decorative Header-680

This Week In Torah

I said, do you speak my language?

Parshat Noach is best known for a story revolving around the parshah’s title character saving all the animals in the world, and as such it is easy to overlook another famous bible story that immediately follows. We read that “All the earth had the same language and the same words,” and together they chose to “. . .build a city with a tower that reaches the sky. . .” [1] G-d saw what the people were doing, was not pleased with their actions, and in the end “confused” (“balal”) their languages, which is how the city was named “Babel.”

In today’s times, I feel there is language that has been “confused.” Citizens in Hong Kong have been demonstrating the past several weeks for the right to vote for independent elected officials. I believe when the Chinese government heard the word “vote,” which according to their parlance that meant, “vote for people whom we approve.” Based on this clear distinction, it’s no small wonder that there have been wide-spread protests. Since words were proving to be less than adequate, the citizens of Hong Kong chose to use a language that they hoped the Chinese government would have an easier time understanding – civil disobedience.

Success in this endeavor has been limited. Since September, when the demonstrations began, the Chinese government has cracked down hard on the protesters, including launching tear gas and pepper spray. A video released on October 15th shows plainclothes police officers laying a man on the ground and violently beating him. Officers took turns thrashing the man and standing watch to ensure the beatings could continue. The very language that is used to describe what is happening has been conflicted, with the protesters calling the recent events a “revolution” while the current leader of Hong Kong, C.Y. Leung claims it is a “mass-movement that has spun out of control.”[2] While Leung has agreed to talks, he has refused essential concessions, effectively eliminating any compromise.[3] As such, I don’t see this conflict ending any time soon.

China is not the only nation with a language disconnect. Our national anthem claims that we are the “land of the free,” and yet we have the highest prison population in the world, backed by a judicial system that taps into our society’s steady undercurrent of racial hatred. People across the U.S. have been mourning the loss of Michael Brown, an African American teenager who, while walking unarmed on August 9th, was shot and killed by police officer Darren Wilson. Not surprisingly, people demonstrated in short order. News outlets clearly used different language in reporting the events. The Telegraph newspaper called the people’s demonstrations “riots,”[4] while NewsOne referred to the same events as an “uprising.”[5] The difference may seem subtle, but the results based on this word choice have a lasting impact.

Several of my friends and colleagues flew to Ferguson to be a part of Ferguson October, a series of rallies from October 10th through 13th calling for Darren Wilson’s arrest and a thorough examination of the racially discriminatory practices in our law enforcement.[6] They couldn’t have picked a better time, because it appears that our law enforcement heard the protests from two months ago as unintelligible noise. The day before Ferguson October, an off-duty police officer claimed that when he saw three men in a neighborhood, one of them started to run. Upon turning his car around, all three started to run. Supposedly, Vonderrit D. Meyers Jr. shot at the officer three times with a stolen handgun before it jammed. The officer responded with seventeen shots, killing Vonderrit. He was only eighteen years old when he died. Police say that they recovered evidence of Vonderrit’s shooting, but Vonderrit’s family say the police are lying, stating that instead of a gun, Vonderrit was carrying a sandwich.[7] In light of recent events, it’s difficult to know who is telling the truth.

Some would say that our language differences go beyond the issues. According to Norma LeMoine, “Linguists agree that most African Americans speak a systematic rule governed language that differs in significant ways from mainstream American-English.” She goes on to call it “African American Language.” [8] By saying that African Americans are speaking a different language from the Caucasian majority (dubbed “Standard American English” by said majority), there is a tremendous amount of distancing and disconnect between the populations.

What reason could there be for creating a severance between these communities? When G-d saw the tower that was being built, G-d said “. . .and this is just the beginning of their doings; now no scheme of theirs will be beyond their reach!”[9] We are seeing right now what can happen when nations across the world are speaking the same language, uniting in support of a common cause. People worldwide are donating money and putting their lives at risk to combat the Ebola epidemic that has already killed over 4,000 people, primarily in West Africa. My fiancé Meredith and I are doing our part, especially because of our personal connection to Senegal, one of several countries that have acutely felt the pain caused by Ebola. Together we have collected over $1,000, and would like you to join us. 93% of your contribution will be used to help those who are most in need. To donate, please click here

When we work together, we can rise up and overthrow oppressive forces, whether it is a disease, an unjust government, or a societal institution that threatens our core values of freedom and equality. We need to be reminded that “If a person were to take a bundle of reeds, that person would not be able to break them all at once. However, if the reeds were to be taken one by one, even a baby could break them.”[10]

 

לא עליך המלאכה לגמור‫, ולא אתה בן חורין לבטל ממנה

 

lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ven chorin libatel mimena

 

“It is not upon you to finish the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”

 

Rabbi Tarfon, Avot 2:16

 



[1] Gen 11:1-4

[2] Whiteman, H. (2014, October 15). Hong Kong authorities vow to probe alleged police beating at protest. BBC News. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/15/world/asia/hong-kong-police-protest-video/index.html?iid=article_sidebar

[3] Deyner, S. (2014, October 16). Hong Kong: Government ready to talk with protesters but rejects key concessions. The Washington Post. Retrieved October 17, 2014, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/hong-kongs-leader-says-government-ready-to-talk-to-student-protesters/2014/10/16/ff42c3c9-b38e-4dee-9d61-70dde7e3971b_story.html

[4] Crilly, R. (2014, August 24). Michael Brown: What the Ferguson riots tell us about race in America today. The Telegraph. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/11052845/Michael-Brown-What-the-Ferguson-riots-tell-us-about-race-in-America-today.html

[5] Savali, K. (2014, August 12). Ferguson Uprising: Community Protests Cop Execution Of Michael Brown. NewsOne. Retrieved October 15, 2014, from http://newsone.com/3043919/ferguson-uprising-community-protests-cop-execution-of-michael-brown-live-stream

[6] (n.d.). Retrieved October 17, 2014, from http://fergusonoctober.com/

[7] Blinder, A. (2014, October 9). New Outcry Unfolds After St. Louis Officer Kills Black Teenager. The New York Times. Retrieved October 17, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/10/us/st-louis-police-shooting-protests.html?_r=0

[8] Harris, J. L., Kamhi, A. G., & Pollock, K. E. (Eds.). (2014). Literacy in African American communities. Routledge.

[9] Genesis 11:6

[10] Midrash Tanchuma, parshat n’tzavim, chapter 1

Shabbat Shalom!

Cantor Richard Lawrence