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In the Desert

(I apologize to those of you who may be irritated by my constant references to New York. I am sad to report that, while the following is indeed local news, I bet there’s not a place in the world where you couldn’t tell a similar story, changing only what are ultimately minor details.)

The judge responsible for the Sean Bell trial returned a verdict of not guilty for all three officers, who shot Mr. Bell in Queens last year. (They thought he was armed; he was not; he was a few hours away from his own wedding, etc.) I’m still pretty much in shock about it. It saddens me immensely when something like this goes down in the first place—not just because, obviously, it’s horrible when someone dies for no reason, but also because this sort of thing serves to sour any progress made between races, between poor people and black people who feel, not without good reason, that they’re targeted by the police. The NYTimes reports that people are taking this relatively in stride—there have been no riots, no outpourings of public rage so noticeable that they affect everyday life.

As a citizen of my city, I obviously appreciate this. But reading in shul this week—it was the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, most appropriately—I was thinking about the Israelite slaves who, when the situation got bad, immediately wanted to go back to Egypt. Slavery had eroded their will to live as free people. And isn’t it true that we convince ourselves that bad situations aren’t so bad? It’s part coping mechanism, I think, and part deadly ennui that lies like a dense fog. When we live in a world where it takes bold action to puncture what Betty Friedan called “a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction.”

I’m not advocating rioting in the streets of New York—that’s not a productive sort of awakening. But we quit the bonds of slavery, all of us together, and we made it through the sea, and now we’re alone together in a big, big desert. Our work, in fact, is only beginning.

–Mel Weiss