Swallowed Alive: An Exit Strategy from the Past Two Weeks

Last week, the editor of this paper deftly and courageously walked a tightrope. He pointed out what government and police need to change so that what happened to George Floyd doesn’t happen to anyone again. A police officer with 17 prior complaints against him held his knee down on Mr. George Floyd’s neck until he died of the injury. Three other officers stood by although they clearly could have saved his life.

Although, as it turned out, he had fentanyl and methamphetamine in his system and may have passed a counterfeit bill to a storeowner, he was certainly not subject to capital punishment. Nor had he gone through anything approaching prosecution, judgment and sentencing. This is a death that could and should have been avoided.

On the other hand, there is no defending the looting, violence, destruction and – from our standpoint – open anti-Semitism that resulted. In the third largest Jewish community in the world, innocent Los Angeles Jewish children were traumatized for life by swastikas, unrepeatable invective, deep-seated anti-Jewish bigotry and the proliferation of signs such as “Free Palestine,” “We coming for your $$$” and “Kill the Jews.” Immigrants who had left Russia thirty years ago wondered if they had escaped for nothing, while others gasped that “this country is not for us.”

I would like to take a moment to delve into the Torah sources for this perspective and discover what wisdom we can glean going forward.

The word “anarchy” has often been invoked these past few days. Survivors of Churban Europa had nightmarish flashbacks to Kristallnacht and the lawlessness of that tragic period. In Nazi Germany – indeed all of Europe – not only did governments fail the Jews, but they became our mortal enemy. Besides Nazi Germany, ancient anti-Semitism reared its ugly head as governments such as France, Poland and Austria joined the devil in his genocidal machinations. But even those who did not openly attempt to exterminate us failed in their primary governmental role to protect its citizens. Our sages knew long ago what the role of government should be. Rav Chanina Segan Hakohanim, the deputy kohein gadol, said, “Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive” (Pirkei Avos 3:2).

Why is it important to make note of the author of this Mishnah? Rav Meir Shapiro zt”l (Imrei Daas, pages 371-272) explained the anomaly of his being called Segan Hakohanim in the plural. Surely, when a kohein gadol passed away, the segan would take over (see Tosafos, Yoma 15b), so that normally the deputy would end up serving only one kohein gadol. However, during that period in Jewish history, the Roman autocracy insisted on controlling and approving or denying such an important public position as kohein gadol. Rav Chanina was a known critic of the Roman government and so was never allowed to rise beyond the deputy position. And yet, he taught that we must daven for the stability of the government because it is often all that stands between us and anarchy (see, also, Rav Yitzchok Zilberstein’s Chashukei Chemed, Avodah Zarah, page 50).

More recently, Rav Avigdor Miller zt”l (Ohr Olam 4:325) related the story of Rav Yisroel Salanter zt”l, who once davened in a Vilna shul where they did not recite the prayer for the government. The great founder of the Mussar Movement went up to the bimah and personally offered the brocha for the king. Rav Miller explained that Rav Yisroel was not just being politically correct. Without respect for law and order, society begins to deteriorate, which can affect us all negatively and dangerously. He concludes that even good Jews need a strong government so that we can develop proper yiras Hashem utilizing the concept of fear of authority. In other words, if we fear even a lowly human monarchy, all the more so should we fear heaven itself. When that breaks down, all can be lost.

Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky zt”l (Emes L’Yaakov, Nezikin II, Avos, page 330) adds a personal observation to this approach. Having been a rov in the city of Tzitivyan, he saw firsthand the harm that the communists had wrought. They promised to depose the representative of monarchy, the Czar, and give “power to the people.” Instead, at the end, it was the communists who lawlessly slaughtered all their opponents and brought chaos to their entire empire. As Rav Yaakov concludes, “For without malchus (the power of a legitimate government), a person would swallow his fellow alive.”

Rav Boruch Halevi Epstein zt”l, author of Torah Temimah (Sefer Boruch She’amar, Avos, page 98), sees the source of all this as even earlier than the Mishnah. He points to the ancient words of Yirmiyahu (23:24): “Seek the peace of the city to which I have exiled you and pray for it to Hashem, for through its peace, you will have peace.”

Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin zt”l (Gevuros Eliyahu, introduction, page 2) also excoriated those who claim to rely upon the natural instinct of people to be moral and ethical: “If you ask them [apparently the communists and other nihilists] what the weak should do when those who are stronger take advantage of them, they answer that man is inherently good and virtue will triumph in the end…Come let us see for ourselves how this philosophy has resulted in lawlessness and destruction everywhere they have prevailed.”

Actually, all of our baalei mussar have taught us this lesson unanimously. Just to offer three basic examples: Rav Yerucham Levovitz (Daas Chochmah Umussar 1:31) admonishes us, “Rav Chanina did not merely say that mankind will murder each other. He warned us that they will swallow each other alive. This describes the most savage of attacks wherein the predator assaults its prey, continuing mercilessly even as it screams until its last breath is gone. A decent human being is horrified by this sight, yet the animal is not only unmoved, but it continues with even greater mutilation, because it has no feelings whatsoever for its victim. However, it is the same with human beings when they perceive that there will be no consequences for their actions. Without the structure of laws and punishment, they would do the same.”

Rav Leib Chasman zt”l (Ohr Yahel 1:80) adds that Rav Chanina uses the word ish in Pirkei Avos, which signifies an intellectual civilized person. Even he can lose himself completely without the restraining effect of a strong government with ironclad laws backed up by police and other enforcers.

Ironically, these rebukes apply just as well to Derek Chauvin, the offending policeman, and his cohorts as to the marauding mobs who pillaged their way through blameless communities because there was no one in authority to stop them.

Finally, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l (Ohr Yechezkel,Yirah Umussar,” page 86) chastises himself for just such sins, although he was so far above such shortcomings that it is only his perfection that leads him to self-judge so severely: “I remember my sin today and I blame myself for not intervening. A while ago, I witnessed in yeshiva a segment of the tzibbur who were disrespectful to a certain person. Now, we know that ‘it is preferable for someone to throw himself into a fiery furnace rather than humiliate someone in public’ (Bava Metziah 58b). How could people easily commit such a transgression? Undoubtedly, they rationalized that what they did was for the sake of heaven. However, that is simply not true, for it flows from the bad traits that are ingrained in us.”

Rav Chatzkel was castigating himself, but the lesson is for us. As our editor said, it was wrong to murder Mr. Floyd; it was wrong to stand by and not forestall murder. But it was most wrong to give orders destroying society, make a mockery of government, and instill fear and intimidation into innocent men, women and children who have a right to depend upon them for their safety.

In other words, we have discovered the main and most important purpose of a government: to protect its innocent citizens from harm. The governors and mayors who have abandoned their posts have wreaked havoc upon the entire raison d’êtres of their existence. It is not a question of Republican, Democrat, conservative or liberal. Of course, currently it is the Republicans and conservatives who favor law and order. However, in truth, every elected official must live by this mandate or should resign in ignominy.

If I may close with a childhood memory: I grew up as a child of survivors, known today as the second generation. Although I didn’t understand at the time, there were undoubtedly post-traumatic symptoms in our family. Our home was beset by tremors, nightmares and many other ailments we inherited from the Nazis ymsh. All of this is well-known. However, a lesser-discussed phenomenon is the fear of authority. I know that I picked up from my wonderful parents z”l a dread of people wearing otherwise innocuous uniforms. This included mailmen, firefighters and, of course, the police. Today, one might describe this kind of phobia as paranoia. However, one by-product of this apprehension is that to this very day, I viscerally know what yirah is. I wish my yiras Shomayim would be commensurate with those fears with which I grew up. But I do know that I had respect for the police.

I don’t recommend that anyone develop new forms of trepidation and anxiety. But I believe that governments must read the rioters “the riot act.” People must know that their actions carry the strongest repercussions allowed by law. The Torah constantly reminds us “so that they shall listen and be afraid.” There is very little of that left.

On the other hand, we must heed the injunction of Rav Chatzkel never to ignore someone who is in pain. Rav Yeruchem Levovitz zt”l (Daas Chochmah Umussar 2:2) warns us that sometimes we don’t respond to someone in pain because we simply don’t hear him. The policemen who stood by, and of course Officer Chauvin, had turned off Floyd’s cries that “I can’t breathe.” We must convey to our usually wonderful protectors that everything must be measured and carefully calibrated. I believe that we are allowed to teach the world that everything must be middah keneged middah, to the extent that a human being can evoke the rule of “a measure for a measure,” so that it will never be death for using a counterfeit bill.

As both the chassidim and the baalei mussar teach, let us start by improving ourselves. The rest of the world will follow later.