Rabbi Alana Suskin spoke at the memorial for Robert White, who was shot and killed by a Montgomery County police officer last summer while walking through his own neighborhood. Here is what she said:
There is an ancient dispute recorded between two famous rabbis about what the most fundamental principle of scripture is:
The first, Rabbi Akiva, comments that the fundamental principle of scripture is from Leviticus: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Lev 19:18)” But the sage Ben Azzai rejects this and says, no; in Genesis 5, verse 1, the bible says, “’This is the book of the generations of Adam,’ and asserts: this principle is more fundamental.” (Sifra 2:16:11)
Why does Ben Azzai reject Rabbi Akiva’s reasoning? Not because he believes that we shouldn’t love our neighbors, but rather because it is not enough to love our neighbors. It is easier to love the person who lives right next to you, than to love the person who lives, perhaps, the next street over, or even the next town over, or in a country over the border. The person who lives right by you is someone who may look like you, or worship like you, or if not, at least you see them often enough to get to know them. But Ben Azzai insists that it’s not enough to love the person we know well – we are actually obligated to honor and respect every person, every soul, because as a descendant of the first human, Adam, we were all created, as it says in Genesis 1:27, b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of the Divine.
In the portion of scripture that the Jewish community reads this week, God continues the instruction of Moses to take a census of the Israelites. In the command that begins this section, the phrase with which God commands this census is “naso et rosh.” It is an unusual way to instruct someone to do a census: there are plenty of words that mean count which could be used — but this phrase doesn’t mean “count” at all: The phrase naso et rosh means, literally “Lift up the head.”
It is so easy when we see a person as part of a group, to forget that they are a separate individual, not only an instance of their group. We live in a society that judges black men harshly, that fails to give them that dignity of individuality, of the reflection of the divine. Our society denies their personhood and places their precious lives at risk even in the most innocuous circumstances, and then fails to hold accountable those responsible for their harm.
The prophet Malachi (2:10) asks, “Have we not all one father? Hath not one God created us? Why do we deal treacherously each one against their brother, profaning the covenant of our fathers?”
Robert Lawrence White was a child of the Creator, made in God’s image. He should have been treasured and helped, but instead he is now… another number in the census of Black men killed in America. But scripture does not accept this, and we must not, either.
Today we are here to distinguish him, and to cherish his memory. To do so, we must stand together to remove him from the ranks of the numbered, and as scripture tells us to, “lift up his head” by reordering our community priorities and insisting on a law that regards every person as worthy of life — every person must be elevated, and every person’s dignity recognized. In your memory, we will act.
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