By Rabbi Peter Kessler, Temple Ohev Sholom
This sermon was originally delivered to Temple Ohev Sholom’s congregation in 2016.
A tale of two boys growing up in an affluent East Coast suburb, very much like Mechanicsburg on the West Shore. Eric & Derrick meet in Pre-K, and find out they’re only 5 days apart. Soon they become best friends.
Eric’s dad is a teacher, his mom is a lawyer. They live in a big house with a pool in the backyard. Derrick’s dad works as an executive at a large corporation, his mom is a doctor. They, too, live in a big house with a pool in the backyard. Eric is always at Derrick’s, Derrick is always at Eric’s, and their parents often do the carpool thing, taking turns to drive the boys to baseball practice.
They go to day camp together, and take the same bus to middle school. They were both nervous to start high school, but Eric was on the baseball team and Derrick was on the swim team and soon they had more friends than they could count. But their best friend was always each other - they told each other everything, about the girls they liked, the boys to stay away from, the teachers who were strict, and the ones who never looked when you took out your cell phone to text someone across the room.
They got their driving permits on the same day- Eric’s dad carefully watching his son drive, Derrick’s mom being the over-cautious doctor teaching her son to drive.
And then the big day to get their licenses. They both pass on the first try, and each set of parents take their son for their first car - new ones, of course, with cameras and blind spot mirrors and all the latest safety features - Eric’s a black Toyota, Derrick’s a silver Honda.
Soon Saturday night rolls around and each of the boys are ready to go out on their respective dates. Mom and dad sit Eric down and give him the lecture: Curfew at 10, no texting or talking on the phone behind the wheel, no speeding, and no picking up any friends along the way.
Mom and dad sit Derrick down and give him the lecture: Curfew at 10, no texting or talking on the phone behind the wheel, no speeding, and no picking up any friends along the way.
Don’t wear a hoodie, don’t draw any attention to yourself, and if you’re pulled over, for heaven sake, keep your hands out of your pockets, be polite to the officer, sit very still in the car, and if he or she asks you to exit the car, be respectful and polite, even if you did nothing wrong, because we want you to come home in one piece - because it’s different when you’re 16, and black.
For every moment of their lives, each boy was blind to the color of the other’s skin, but the world isn’t blind. No, the world is never blind, and even though each boy is clean, respectful, comes from a good family, drives a brand new car, and follows the rules, life has different rules for Derrick than Eric. That’s just the way it is.
Is it because the police are racist, or is it because the police are frightened? Is it because putting on a badge makes you a target for every marginalized person with a complaint, or is it because many neighborhoods are jungles filled with people who act more like animals?
Is it because skin color makes some people frightened of others, or is it because people whose parents aren’t like Eric & Derrick’s feel as though no one cares whether they live or die?
Yes, yes, and yes…it is all these things. For some terrible reason, teenage boys with dark skin need to be reminded time and again that there is a double standard in this world and they have to live by rules meant not for them, but about them, and the perception that they will be violent, destructive, and dangerous to be around.
A similar scene was played out on every news program today, after the President expressed his sorrow, frustration, and anger over the five slain Dallas policemen and the hands of a deranged man. The African American newscasters were all frightened on CNN and ABC this morning….frightened for their communities, frightened for the police force, and all of them, including the mayor of Dallas, frightened for all of their children, growing up in a world where there is a double standard...where black lives don’t matter as much as white ones do, and they tremble with fear and anxiety every time their children get into a car and hope and pray that they come home alive. The same way the husbands and wives of police officers tremble with fear and anxiety every time their spouses put on the uniform and get into the car as they hope and pray that they come home alive.
I don’t think hope is going to save them and I don’t think prayer is going to save them either. Frankly I don’t know what is going to save the African American teenagers from a world that looks at them differently from white kids or what is going to save our police officers from being viewed as tyrannical adversaries in the delicate balance of the law.
What I do know is that kindness, understanding, peaceful conversation, and respect is going to be the only way we can begin to sift through the hatred that would cause a police officer to kill an innocent father or a sniper to kill an innocent police officer. The world is in a precarious position this Shabbat and I’m afraid that prayer will not be the answer in the face of hatred.