Not many people fill the seats at Grand Lake Theater for the Friday matinee of Fruitvale Station, but by the time the film was over, there is not a dry eye in the audience. I thought it was only me, because I can cry even when we watch Cool Runnings for the 15th time. But as I saw the other puffy red faces at the restrooms, I had to wonder, what is it?
Maybe it’s because you can’t tell yourself it’s just a movie. And what’s worse, you can tell yourself, it just happened this once and “never again”. Maybe it’s because there are hundreds if not thousands of people in this city who wake up every day knowing that what stands between them and Oscar Grant is sheer coincidence. There are young men who walk out daily to the streets, the Bart, the bus, the stores, fully conscience that it could have been them; it can still be any one of them. There are countless mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, who know – every day – that this can happen to their son, their brother, their grandson, their neighbor. A recent article in the SF Chronicle shared that a Black male in Oakland has just as many chances to graduate high school ready for college, as he does to be killed. So when he is late at night, he might be chatting with a friend, finishing work, waiting at the stoplight, hugging his girlfriend. But just the same – he might be shot. Before rushing 9000 miles away to decide for others how to live and fix the other side of the world, come to Oakland. You don’t need to go very far to do a lot of good. in the words of this week’s parasha: “ki karov elecha hadavar me’od” – For it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do” (Deuteronomy 30).
On the “Never Again” streak, Hannah Arendt leaves me with a different but maybe complementary message. She lies on her couch, cigarette at hand, trying to make sense of Eichmann’s trial (1961) which aims to showcase the greatest horrific evil of the monstrous Nazi machine, but the grey man standing on the podium behind the glass cage, is just a “runny-nosed bureaucrat”, a system’s “yes-man”. It’s even hard to call him an anti-Semite. He doesn’t have any umf and doesn’t seem to be pro or con anything. He couldn’t care less what or who is at the end of the train tracks. He is in uniform, he has a job, and that job must be done. She notices “the banality of evil”: small, dull, dreary, minute details that all add up to great wrong doings but leave no one directly responsible as they are composed of little people, little actions, each just doing what they are told, just moving train schedules, just making sure the locomotives are well stocked, just making sure factories have the right orders. It’s a long ride to Poland, and gasoline is expensive. He was a hard working officer, a good soldier, following orders, doing his best for his superiors (Whom he viewed as a Superior, but that’s for another time -).
We, the audience, wanted a simple story: with good (us), and with bad (them). We did not want to bother with this grey, messy stuff in the middle. We wanted an obvious tale, where we did everything right, and other bad people out there did bad things to us. We wanted the good to be close and those evil forces to be far, on someone else, on something we can point and pin and then punish. We did not want a chance that evil might be a fluid matter that can enter anyone, anywhere, anytime; that it might be in us too, and that therefore we will have to struggle with it ourselves in a real, painful, intimate manner.
Hannah Arendt – and the Torah portion – further deny us this option, as is so poignantly pointed out by a long ago dear student of mine, Ahuva Zaches, in her sermon: We are to stand “kulchem”, “all of us”, meaning, not just each one of us together, but each one bringing his – or her – whole self, the good and the pretty, along with the bad and the ugly. The bad news is – we have to live with the fact that we have both; the good news – there is room to us to have this and that. We don’t have to be perfect. We can be who we are.
This week’s Shabbat, the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashana, we read the double portions of Nitzavim-Vayelech. These are some of the shortest, yet most profound sections in the Five Books. One (Nitzavim) means standing, and the other – (Vayelech) going.
Of course, nitzavim is not simply standing. In Modern Hebrew, it means standing straight and tall, 90 degrees to the ground, sort of like in “attention”. It expresses perfect, stationary balance. Vayelech, on the other hand, asks for forward movement. The picture we get with this is of Moses who spends his last day of his 120 years alive, going to the people. He could have stayed in his tent, waiting to receive the audience. He could have mediated with God. But he opts to get up and go out, to see everybody, to share his words, wisdom, care, to say his personal goodbyes like one loving friend to another. And yet, it is not a social scene. Moses, our rabbi, the greatest human being in our history, the man of God and the leader of the people, on his last day – walks alone. Alone ascending the mountain, alone approaching his death, disappearing into the horizon, and alone he will be buried in an unknown location, unapproachable to anyone.
Nitzavim tells about a covenant which is contracted with all those standing ready to enter the Promised Land, and even with those not yet there, not yet born, like us. It’s about peoplehood with a great big capital P, and for a moment, we go, ha? How can anyone sign a contract with someone who isn’t present? And yet, so it goes. And at the very same time we’re offered a “brit” (a covenant), the Torah already knows that like kids who are told no, we will mess up, and therefore goes on to tell us about tshuva, about the path back, about finding an answer when things seem down or lost. It is then that it tells us that this answer “is not greater than you, nor far away. It’s not in the heavens, lest you say: who will go to us to the heavens and bring it to us and let us hear it so we may do it. And not beyond the seas, lest you say: who will cross the sea and bring it. For it is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do” (Deuteronomy 30).
Here it is, all of it: The inner voice and the outer clatter; The Heaven, far from our reach above and the Earth, accepting us below; The individual, all alone, and the community, numerous, loud, demanding, sharing, leaning; Those far from us, and those so near; The evil without and the one within, we dare not speak of; The force of revenge and the begging of mercy. And us in between it all, every day anew, asking to tread safely on the balance beam.
Shabbat Shalom & Shana Tova. May it be a good one, and may the journey ahead bring peace.