Between the Torah and Trayvon

Parashat Tzav and the Demand for Justice

Torah Commentary
By Asaf Bar-Tura, Associate Director of Programs, JCUA 

The title of this week’s Parshah, Tzav, means “Command.” It introduces G-d’s call to Moses to instruct Araon and his sons – the Kohanim (priests) – about the laws governing sacrifices in the sanctuary. We notice that G-d merely speaks to Moses (“Vayedaber el Moshe”), but tells him to command Aaron. Rashi points out that the word Tzav, “Command” – rather than the more familiar “Speak” or “Tell” – generally pertains to tasks requiring a sense of urgency and commitment. These are things which need to be performed “immediately as well as for posterity.”

But would G-d tell Moses to command Aaron? Could G-d not have told Moses to tell Aaron? Would G-d have doubted the commitment of Aaron and his sons? Why employ a word implying such urgency?

Rashi explains that the concern is that while there is excitement about the performance of these new rituals, the people may not continue their commitment as time goes by. Will the passion and enthusiasm wane?

My sense is that this same question is relevant when we think about the shooting of Trayvon Martin. There is a passionate movement around the country seeking justice for Trayvon. We don’t know yet exactly what happened that evening in the encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. We only know that Trayvon is dead.

So, what does it mean to seek justice for Trayvon? Will this movement succeed? My worry is similar to the worry about Aaron and his sons – that we will not think far enough into the future.

We must not only speak (l’daber) our call for justice. It must have the power to ensure justice for posterity. And this means first acknowledging that our society has long waged war against young African American men and children. Although we know not what happened on the night of Trayvon’s death, we know that it was not unforeseeable.

We know that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is still not ratified by the United States (the only country in the world along with the dysfunctional Somalia and the newly-born South Sudan). The reasons for this travesty have mostly to do with the ongoing practice of incarcerating minors for life sentences without parole (and until recently executing minors), which is banned by the Convention.

Research shows clearly that the more unequal the income is in a given society, the more it tends to incarcerate people (not because of more crimes, but because of harsher sentencing), and the more this society is likely to retain the death penalty.

A report produced by the U.S. Department of Justice from the year 2000 sheds light on how little we value the lives of young people, and least of all young people of color. The report found that:

  • Approximately 107,000 youth (younger than 18) are incarcerated on any given day.
  • 75 percent of minors in prisons were sentenced as adults.
  • Of the 44 state prison systems that house juveniles as adults, only 18 states maintain designated youthful offender housing units.
  • 55 percent of youth inmates were black.
  • Health, education, and counseling programs were fairly standard, with little evidence of efforts to customize programs for youth offenders.

In the United States, dozens of 13- and 14-year-old children have been sentenced to life imprisonment with no possibility of parole after being prosecuted as adults. While the United States Supreme Court recently declared that death by execution is unconstitutional for juveniles, young children continue to be sentenced to die in prison with very little scrutiny or review. There are 73 documented cases where children 14 years of age or younger have been condemned to death in prison. Almost all of these kids currently lack legal representation and in most of these cases the propriety and constitutionality of their extreme sentences has never been reviewed.

Most of the sentences imposed on these children were mandatory: the court could not give any consideration to the child’s age or life history. That means that these sentences are a direct result of public policy and legislation. It is our decision, collectively, to incarcerate teenagers for life. Some of the crimes charged against these children do not involve homicide or even injury. Many of these children were convicted for offenses where older teenagers or adults were involved and primarily responsible for the crime.

Nearly two-thirds of these adolescents are children of color.

The U.S. was the only country in the Western hemisphere or the G8 to kill its prisoners, and was ranked 5th worldwide in most known executions by a country, only behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq (as an independent country, Texas would have ranked 7th, between North Korea and Somalia, with its 13 executions in 2011).

Indeed, incarceration is not the only way we demonstrate our disregard for young people. We are, for the most part, a culture that values life only from conception until birth. To give but few examples:

  • The average age of a homeless person in the U.S. is 12.
  • It is estimated that more than 7 million children in the U.S. do not have any health insurance, not even irregular.
  • The U.S. ranks 42nd in the world in child mortality rates, behind most of Europe, the Arab Emirates, Serbia, Malaysia, Chile, and Cuba.

The shooting of Trayvon Martin is not the only place where lately we have seen hate, bigotry and ignorance rise above compassion and common sense. We have seen Jews gunned down in France. One of the girls, Miriam, executed with a gun to her head as she tried to escape.

We have also seen the murder of Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi refugee, in El Cajun, California. A note was left by her body referring to her as a terrorist.

Do this killings have anything in common? They do, and it is not just a disregard for human life, but a deep alienation from others. Fear. Ignorance. Lack of connection.

One of the long-term aims of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs is to bring people together. We engage. We facilitate the overcoming of fears and bigotry.

I think of Emmanuel Levinas, the 20th Century Jewish philosopher who wrote that in the face of the other human being, we recognize a summons, a divine command. It is a command to do justice to the other. But this only happens if you look into the face of the other. Into the eyes under the hoodie, or the kipah, or the hijab.

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