Parshat Hukkat
July 16, 2016  |  10 Tammuz 5776
Delivered by Rabbi Neil Sandler

King Solomon – A pretty smart man, right?

In fact, when it comes to wisdom, our tradition teaches us that King Solomon was unparalleled.

No one was as wise as King Solomon.

And yet, when King Solomon went to shul on this particular Shabbat one time, he leaned over to the rabbi (who, of course, felt a bit intimidated by being in the presence of the world’s wisest man) and said, “Rabbi, I understand all of the mitzvot, all of the commandments in the Torah.”

“But this one at the opening of our parasha, Hukkat, this one I don’t understand.”

With a little poetic license and a complete and utter lack of history in mind, I have just quoted a fairly well-known midrash to you … more or less.

What was King Solomon talking about?

The beginning of our Torah reading describes the red heifer, the Parah Adumah, whose ashes were mixed with some other ingredients to create a liquid application that simultaneously purified an impure individual AND caused a person to become impure!

Let’s try that again.

This liquid application made the individual who prepared it impure.

He had to refrain from contact with other people the rest of the day.

However that very same liquid application was used to purify people who had become impure through their contact with the dead.

So here we had a liquid application that simultaneously made some people impure while it purified others.

No wonder that King Solomon just scratched his head when he read this part of today’s Torah Portion.

You understand why King Solomon was so perplexed, don’t you?

Because he saw this situation as an “either-or” situation.

Either this liquid concoction should purify or it should create impurity…not both!

It could not do both at least not simultaneously.

Yet there really was another way to look at this situation.

There had to be another way of looking at is so that this mixture would simultaneously maintain qualities at odds with each other!

That way was “both-and.”

This liquid application that began with the ashes of the red heifer could simultaneously create impurity and purity.

It wasn’t logical to think so, and it wasn’t comfortable to think so.

But in this moment, the Torah asked King Solomon and continues to ask us today to embrace the tension at times of “both – and.”

It’s not always “either-or,” “cut and dried.”

Sometimes it is “both-and,” an uncomfortable yet necessary place to be.

Over the course of recent days we have been reminded of the possibilities and opportunities of “both-and…”

And we have been reminded of the discomfort that can come with seeking to simultaneously take positions that don’t easily co-exist.

We are living in tumultuous times.

Against this backdrop, through today’s technology, we were brought almost instantaneously to Baton Rouge and to suburban St. Paul less than two weeks ago and to very disturbing images of police who had killed seemingly defenseless black men involved in minor offenses.

And then we were brought within moments of the crime, through that same technology, to Dallas and to the horrific murders of five police officers who were deployed to protect the people who were peacefully protesting the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile.

Immediately people began to take sides especially with regard to what had occurred in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul.

We saw the protestors in our community and in others.

While many of these protestors want to address larger, troubling issues  in America, they began their participation in protests by picking a side.

They said, in effect, “The victims – two black men – are blameless; the perpetrators – the police officers who shot them – are guilty.”

“Either-or.”

While we did not see gatherings on behalf of the police following these two incidents, we heard their supporters in casual conversations.

“Those guys in Baton Rouge and suburban St. Paul probably had it coming to them.”

“The police officers did what they had to do when they felt threatened.”

The protestors were “idiots.”

The victims were wrong; the police officers were right.

“Either-or.”  One right.  The other wrong.

Now, in the days following these terrible incidents and what occurred in Dallas, all across our country people are stirring.

Some of them are clamoring for change.

We know that we are in this together.

We know that we are part of one country, the greatest democracy in the world.

But we’re beginning to realize that many Americans, especially people of color, do not experience America that way.

We want things to change.

We want to be part of a nation that really is devoted to “liberty and justice” for all.

And some of us are ready to be agents of change toward that goal.

But friends, as long as we remain tethered to the mentality of “either-or” – one side is right and the other is wrong –

We will fail!

If we are to succeed, we must begin to understand, accept and embrace the tension that comes with a “both-and” orientation, one in which we can truly empathize with others by seeing life and experiences from their perspective which may be very different from our own.

We must see the truths not only in our views, but also in theirs …. even when it makes us uncomfortable to do so.

Dr. Brian Williams, an African American man, is a trauma surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.  He treated many of the police officers who had been wounded.

Perhaps you saw him on the television news or on other news programs.

While I saw Dr. Williams on TV a couple of times, I thought that his interview with CNN’s Don Lemon earlier this week was extraordinary.

Listen to these excerpts from what Dr. Williams said, and you will hear elements of this “both-and” approach that begins with understanding and an ability to identify with both sides.

WILLIAMS: …I’m still thinking about the officers and the families and the men that were killed in Baton Rouge and in Minnesota last week. And I compare my situation to theirs. It’s hard for me to focus on myself right now…,

and my fear and some mild, inherent distrust of law enforcement that goes back to my own personal experiences that I’ve had over my entire life, as well as hearing the stories from friends and family that look like me, that have had similar experiences. Put that all together, and that will explain why I feel the way I do…

I’m certainly not the only African-American male in this country that feels the way I do toward law enforcement. But I work with them on a daily basis. They’re my colleagues. They’re my friends. And as I said, I’ll respect what they do.

But I also understand how men like me can fear and distrust officers in uniform. I get it. But that does not justify inciting violence against police officers. Does not justify trying to kill police officers.
WILLIAMS: I don’t understand why people think it’s OK to kill police officers. I don’t understand why black men die in custody and they’re forgotten the next day. I don’t know why this has to be us against them.

WILLIAMS: We are in this together, we are all connected. All this violence, all this hatred, all these disagreements, it impacts us all. Whether you realize it or not. This is not the kind of world we want to leave for our children. Something has to be done.

You can hear the “both-and” quality in Dr. Williams words, can’t you?

He is with the protesters, in a sense, because he still mildly distrusts the police…the product simply of having been born a black male in this country.

But Dr. Williams is also with the police.

They are now his colleagues and friends.

On Tuesday when President Barack Obama spoke at a memorial service for the five fallen Dallas police officers, he was even clearer about this “both-and” orientation.

But America – We know that bias remains. We know it, whether you are black, or white, or Hispanic, or Asian, or native American, or of Middle Eastern descent.  We have all seen this bigotry in our own lives at some point. We’ve heard it at times in our own homes. If we’re honest, perhaps we’ve heard prejudice in our own heads and felt it in our own hearts. We know that. And while some suffer far more under racism’s burden, some feel to a far greater extent discrimination’s stain.

Although most of us do our best to guard against it and teach our children better, none of us is entirely innocent. No institution is entirely immune, and that includes our police departments. We know this.

(Then, after having mentioned the police in this unflattering way, the President shared the following:)

And then we tell the police, “You’re a social worker; you’re the parent; you’re the teacher; you’re the drug counselor.” We tell them to keep those neighborhoods in check at all costs and do so without causing any political blowback or inconvenience; don’t make a mistake that might disturb our own peace of mind.

And then we feign surprise when periodically the tensions boil over…

We know those things to be true. They’ve been true for a long time. We know it.

Police, you know it.

Protesters, you know it.

You know how dangerous some of the communities where these police officers serve are. And you pretend as if there’s no context.

These things we know to be true. And if we cannot even talk about these things, if we cannot talk honestly and openly, not just in the comfort of our own circles, but with those who look different than us or bring a different perspective, then we will never break this dangerous cycle.

(As President Obama concluded his speech, he reflected on what it would mean if we, not just police officers and protestors, but ALL of us, could see and admit these things.  He suggested that if we could recognize the troubles and the truths of the other, a breakthrough might be possible.)

(Listen to what he said…)

…Maybe the police officer (could) see his own son in that teenager with a hoodie, who’s kind of goofing off but not dangerous.

And the teenager — maybe the teenager (could) see in the police officer the same words, and values and authority of his parents.

My friends – What President Obama said – That represents the essence of being able to embrace “both-and” rather than “either-or.”

It is the starting point for real and potentially lasting change…to see the possible truth and, most importantly, the humanity in the other, one with whom you may disagree.

Perhaps it is unfortunate that King Solomon had such trouble in making sense of the Parah Adumahand liquid mixture described in today’s parasha.

But in the end, a person didn’t need to analyze and understand its seemingly contradictory qualities – simultaneously creating purity and impurity.

He just had to follow the instructions as we read them in the Torah today.

Today’s dilemmas are far more complex, and the poor choices we exercise are far more harmful in the moment and well beyond it.

So let us seek to gain the wisdom that the wise King Solomon lacked – to embrace the sometimes difficult and tension-filled choice of “both-and.”

May that choice and the actions we and our leaders will undertake as a result be for a blessing.

Amen.