Thoughts on the verdict RE the murder of George Floyd: "Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor" (Leviticus 19:16)

Jewish tradition calls us to view events in our lives and in our world through the lens of the Jewish calendar -- and so the Minneapolis verdict that was announced this week resonated in for me in this week’s torah portions of Aharei Mot / Kedoshim, especially in the verse לא תעמד על דם רעך, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor” (Leviticus 19:16). 

According to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 73a), this is the commandment requiring bystanders to become upstanders, with the requirement to save lives of those we see in danger.  The ancient midrashic collection called Sifra adds:  מניין שאם אתה יודע עדות לחברך שאי אתה רשאי לשתוק ת"ל לא תעמוד על דם רעך  “From what verse do we know that someone who knows testimony about another that they are not allowed to be silent?  From the verse:  ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’ .”  (Sifra Kedoshim 4:8)

During George Floyd’s tragic final moments, there were remarkable acts of heroism by many bystanders who became upstanders, people with no prior connection to George Floyd who tried valiantly to save him from his murderer.  Darnella Frazier, age 17 at the time, embodied the teachings of this commandment when she took the cellphone video to document his murder.  (We know what likely would have happened had she not taken the video: the Minneapolis Police’s initial statement, which blamed Floyd’s death on a “medical incident” and did not mention that an officer’s weight was on his neck for almost 10 minutes, probably would have remained the Police Department’s narrative of the event.) 

Donald Williams also embodied this commandment when he called 911 to report the crime in progress, as did 911 dispatcher Jena Scurry who notified her supervisory sergeant that she felt she was witnessing an act of horrifying police misconduct.  Minneapolis Police Chief Arredondo embodied the teachings of this commandment by coming forward to testify that the officers’ actions were absolutely contrary to what should be police procedure.  Others who were present that day and did whatever they could to save his life also embodied this commandment; a number of witnesses broke down on the stand in sadness that they could not have done more.   Their collective acts of heroism did not succeed in saving George Floyd’s life, but we pray that these actions will save future lives, by communicating that murderers will be held accountable.

When they operate at their best, the role of law enforcement officers in the United States is also to fulfill this commandment to “not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor,” by actively intervening to save lives and ensure safety and accountability.  But as long as people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds experience differential treatment by law enforcement, this commandment is being tragically violated.   

For the sake of the people of color in our own synagogue community and in our own families, for the sake of people of color throughout this country, and for the sake of every American, none of us can rest until this country truly embraces the Torah’s injunction, משפט אחד יהיה לכם, “You shall have one single standard of justice.” (Leviticus 24:22).


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