Three Teenagers

Tonight, I'm thinking about three teenage girls.

Tonight, I'm thinking about three teenage girls.

The first is Noam O'Connor, who celebrated her bat mitzvah with Kavana this past Shabbat (see the Mazel Tov blurb below!). It was a mincha/afternoon service, so the Torah portion Noam read last Saturday was actually the one for this coming week: Parashat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. From this long and far-reaching double parasha, Noam chose to build her D'var Torah around a single verse: Leviticus 19:14, which reads: "lo t'kalel cheiresh, v'lifnei iver lo titein michshol, v'yareita me'elohecha, ani adonai," "Do not curse the deaf or place a stumbling-block before the blind; rather you should fear your God; I am the Lord." As Noam explained, there is a long rabbinic tradition of reading this verse as extending far beyond the words' literal sense. She interpreted "lo t'kalel cheiresh, v'lifnei iver lo titein michshol" as instructing each of us to do what is right and kind in every situation, even when no one else is watching, and explained that being Jewish is important to her in part because it holds us all to this high ethical standard.

The second teenager I'm thinking about today is Darnella Frazier. The initial incident report filed by the Minneapolis Police Dept on May 25, 2020, had a headline that read, "Man dies after medical incident during police interaction," and of course left out many key details that that we have come to know well, including how Derek Chauvin pressed his knee into George Floyd's neck for over nine minutes, as Floyd repeatedly said, "I can't breathe." But, throughout the whole incident, this brave teenager calmly captured on film all that transpired, ultimately enabling the whole world to see. To the extent that yesterday's verdict marked a turning point in our American society -- and truly, I hope that in time, we will be able to look back and say that it did-- this 17-year-old girl and her cellphone camera will deserve much of the credit. Being able to say so also necessitates acknowledging how often this sort of racially-motivated crime, leading to injury and even to murder, has clearly happened without consequence in our country, simply because there are no witnesses. I certainly hope that Darnella Frazier's courageous act will inspire and help hold our society up to higher standards of accountability. Even more, I pray for the day when teens with cell-phones won't be the only reason that justice is sometimes served; I pray that Noam O'Connor's Torah -- about doing the right thing even when no one else is looking -- will be internalized and enacted consistently.

Third and finally, I am thinking today about Ma'Khia Bryant, the 16-year-old girl who -- mere hours after the Chauvin verdict was read in Minneapolis -- was shot and killed by a police officer in Columbus, Ohio. Like many of you, I would guess, I breathed a huge sigh of relief (and also felt some degree of surprise) when yesterday's verdict was read. But, if we didn't know it well enough already, the death of Ma'Khia Bryant stands as a stark rebuke to any who would rest too comfortably or celebrate too giddily in the wake of this just verdict; joyful celebration, while beautiful, is insufficient. As I said last week, there is still a house -- actually, many systems -- that must be destroyed and rebuilt first; there is still too much work to do as we dismantle systemic racism in America.

This week, as we pause inside the double parasha of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, we find ourselves, quite literally, sitting in the wake of death (that's the meaning of "acharei mot") and striving towards holiness (that is "kedoshim"). May we all be inspired by Noam's Torah, and by Darnella's brave witnessing and call to accountability. May Ma'Khia's memory be a blessing, and also for a revolution.

Finally, may each of us do the right thing, over and over again, even when no one else is watching, and call on each other to do the same... so that ultimately, together, we can build a society worthy of these beautiful teenagers.

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum