Jewish Journal

When Society Loses Its Balance

by Susan Esther Barnes

August 20, 2014 | 1:30 am

Photo of painting by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, http://www.lkushner.com

For many of us, especially we privileged white folk, the world in which we conduct our lives may seem like a pretty solid, predictable, trustworthy place. It’s easy to forget that society only works when almost everyone believes they are better off when they follow society’s rules. This makes the rulebreakers the outliers, and reasonably able to be kept in check by the authorities.

Trouble arises when enough people decide not to follow society’s rules. If the people who decide this are in positions of power, they may get away with it for a period of time. One example of this may be when the police decide to stop, frisk, and question people based on their race rather than on probable cause. Likely, they will get away with it. At least for a while.

But when those in power break the rules often enough, and get away with it often enough despite legitimate complaints, those who are being cheated of their rights will, eventually, decide it is no longer in their best interest to follow the rules, either. Often, the response to this by people in power is to apply more power, which further angers those seeking justice.

This is what we see happening in Ferguson. What happens next doesn't depend on whether Michael Brown z”l was running toward the officer when he was shot. What matters is that, after decades of feeling that those in power were not following the rules, those who were suffering as a result of it are fed up.

What matters is that trust between those in power and a large segment of the population has broken down. The people see the police breaking the rules, so eventually they decide to break the rules, too, by peacefully protesting. Then others see people peacefully protesting, and they see those crowds as cover to further break the rules by committing acts of violence against people and property. The police see the violence, and, at times, over-react, further alienating the peaceful protesters.

It is a vicious cycle.

Society breaks down. A once peaceful town is torn by unrest. The scenes play across TV screens across the nation and the world.

As we move from Tisha B’Av to S’lichot to the High Holy Days, we are reminded, as Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.” Too often we walk forward fearlessly, without noticing the narrowness of the bridge upon which we walk.

The actions of each of us ripple out into the world in ways we can never know. Each selfish act which harms others can encourage others to also commit such acts. Each act of love and compassion can inspire others to do the same.

Your choices matter. My choices matter. The fate of our society totters in the balance. Notice the narrowness of the bridge, and choose wisely.

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Susan Esther Barnes is a religious Reform Jew who can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She is a founding member of her synagogue’s chevra...

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