Thursday, May 16, 2024

The Police, the Community and Us

No elected official in the United States today can escape the highly charged issue of police vs. community relations. The president of the United States, Barack Obama , the mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, and mayors, governors and even congressman throughout the country have this issue high on their agenda. One cannot open a newspaper without some aspect of the issue on the front page, if not as the lead headline.

In truth, everyone wants effective, successful and considerate policing. Everyone is concerned about the welfare and rights of citizens. Nobody wants police brutality or the other extreme, anarchy. The question is: Where and how do you find the balance?

Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, in Emes L’Yaakov, asks a fascinating question: Why in Pirkei Avos (3:2) does the Mishnah mention that Rav Chanina Segan Hakohanim said, “One should pray for the welfare of the kingdom, for without it a man would devour his friend alive”? What is this doing in Pirkei Avos? Rav Yaakov quotes the Bartenurah, who says that the Mishnayos in this masechta were written to hand down the mesorah of Torah Shebaal Peh, not to give advice for civil administration.

He answers that, in context, Rav Chanina Segan Hakohanim lived at a time of the ascension of the wicked Romans. The Torah is teaching us that even a brutal regime is better than none.

Rav Yaakov relates from his own life experience living in Russia during a period when elements rebelled against the despotic rule of the czar. They wanted to give the power to the people. Ultimately, all those who ascended to power used that power to kill anyone who was against them, even those who were originally their friends. They did so in order to firmly establish their own rule. It was exactly as the Mishnah says: Without a powerful government, “a man will devour his friend alive.”

When my rebbi, Rav Dovid Kronglas zt”l, mashgiach of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel, taught this Mishnah, he described how, as one army retreated during the Second World War and the opposing army had not yet entered a city, the inhabitants plundered, stole and even killed. The Mishnah is telling us that although we would like a benevolent regime, we cannot rely on the socially acceptable mores and restraints of society. We need either yiras Shomayim or yiras ha“police.”

The Torah is unequivocal regarding where the balance must lie.

There is yet another issue that we must consider. Most of those reading this article are not elected officials who have it within their power to make changes in this area. We can use our power at the ballot box to elect those who support a strong police presence, but from election to election, there is something else that we can do, and that is to show our hakoras hatov to those who help make our cities safe. That is important for our own growth and development in avodas Hashem.

In this week’s parsha, there is a Medrash that Rashi cites in his commentary on a posuk in Shemos (7:19). Moshe Rabbeinu was not permitted to hit the water of the Nile River to start the plague of blood, because the water had protected him when he was a baby. He couldn’t hit the earth, because the earth was used to protect him when it hid the Egyptian he had killed.

How do we understand the Torah’s predilection for demonstrating appreciation even toward an inanimate object? Does the earth or the water have feelings or the ability to decide that they will help or will not help an individual? How can we understand a feeling of hakoras hatov to earth or water?

Once again, let me quote my rebbi, Rav Dovid Kronglas. He explained it as follows. The Medrash Rabbah (Vayikra 27) states: “In the future, ruach hakodesh will say, ‘Who praised me before I gave him a neshamah? Who gave his son a bris before I gave him a son? Who made a fence around his roof before I gave him a house?’” The Medrash continues by listing many other mitzvos that we cannot perform before Hakadosh Boruch Hu grants us the object with which to do the mitzvah.

There is nothing that we are asked to do or perform without us having first received something far greater from Hakadosh Boruch Hu. We are obligated to praise Hashem, but let us realize that it is merely a reflection of the appreciation that is due to Him for endowing us with a neshamah. We must perform a bris milah, but let us recognize that it is a reflection of the hakoras hatov that we must have to Hashem for blessing us with a son. We must toil and build a parapet around our roofs, but that is the minimum we must do in appreciation of the gift that Hashem bestowed upon us by giving us a home.

All of Torah and mitzvos is, in effect, an expression of appreciation for what Hashem has given us. If one has the middah of hakoras hatov, then keeping the Torah and mitzvos is elementary. Gratitude is a fundamental theme of the Torah perspective.

The Torah demands of us to train ourselves in the middah of hakoras hatov to the extent that we even feel appreciation to earth and water if they help us. Hakadosh Boruch Hu wants us to feel appreciation to Egyptians who killed our children for the many years that they allowed us to live in their land. Why? Because if we feel hakoras hatov to water and earth and to the Egyptians, how much more so will we feel hakoras hatov to the munificent King of the world who gives us everything that we have with such bounty.

I was therefore very impressed when I read a letter to the editor in the Yated from an old friend, Josh Darabaner. If you missed it, he wrote as follows:

This past Sunday morning, I went out of my way to go to the 70th police precinct station house on Lawrence Avenue in Brooklyn, NY, somewhat near my home.

The desk officer looked up from his paperwork and asked me, “May I help you?” I responded, “I’m not here on a police matter, but just to express my condolences for our brothers, the two police officers who were murdered here in Brooklyn. I refer to them as our brothers,” I continued,” not your brothers, because someone who puts his life on the line to protect us all is indeed our brother. May we know of no more tragedies.”

As I was speaking, the desk officer kept nodding his head in the affirmative. When I finished, he said, “Thank you. What you said is much appreciated.”

We must try to make a kiddush Hashem under all circumstances. Look how easy it can sometimes be.

It is true that it is the Torah teaching that we need a viable and effective police force in order to live in a civilized world. It is perhaps more important that we learn to appreciate those who protect us so that we learn to be better servants of Hashem.

The author can be reached at



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