The brutal attacks against police officers and the raging protests around the country contesting police authority and its boundaries have made me re-think public service. I wonder what it must be like to be afraid of a police officer. I also wonder what it must be like to be a police officer in this country who entered the police force to bring together his patriotic impulse with a chance to serve the country and now finds himself a target of hatred and suspicion. Deuteronomy commands that as soon as we enter the Land of Israel, we put in place offices of justice - "You shall appoint judges and police officers for your tribes in all the places that the Lord, your God, is giving you...(16:18) - but I wonder who is rushing today to become a police officer in this charged and potentially lethal climate?
This led me to consider what it means to dedicate oneself and then re-dedicate oneself to public service in light of the these tensions. As we say goodbye to another Hanuka, it's a good time to think about what commitment means and what we want to recommit ourselves to moving forward. Hanuka means "dedication," and the holiday is named for the rededication of the Temple of old. Rededication is an interesting concept; it demands a statement of beliefs and priorities that we should, on occasion, re-affirm in word and deed. After all, how often do we re-commit ourselves to our values? What would that look like? People do have re-commitment or renewal ceremonies when they re-affirm marriage vows or re-commit themselves to their faith, but this is not standard practice.
Maybe we don't talk enough today about public service. In the quote above, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, in his book Commitment and Complexity: Jewish Wisdom in an Age of Upheaval, challenges us to consider what it means to educate towards commitment. For many people, commitment is a foreign language. We like to educate today for choice rather than commitment. Put a plethora of options before people and let them decide. It takes us longer to make decisions because there are so many possible choices. Commitment seems to diminish our hard-won freedoms. If commitment feels far away then re-commitment is even further away.
Rabbi Yehuda Amital (1924-2010) was a leading Jewish scholar in Israel and a member of the Israeli cabinet. He moved to Israel in 1944 after serving in a Nazi labor camp; his entire family was killed in Auschwitz. He rebuilt his life in what was then Palestine, was ordained as a rabbi, served in multiple wars and then founded the elite yeshivat hesder, Yeshivat Har-Etzion, an academic center that combines high-level Talmud study with army service. Rabbi Amital understood something about personal commitment and educating others for service. It is not an easy business: "The very notion of commitment to a cause or an object runs contrary to the concept of freedom. Therefore any commitment - whether to the nation, the state, society, or to one's spouse and family - has no place in an era of freedom of the individual."
In the critical conversation we are having as a country about the role of the police so many issues are being thrown into this explosive cocktail: race, violence, security and power. One of the conversations that we have yet to have is about the nature of public service. How can we make sure that the best and the brightest strengthen their commitment to public service - either as professionals or volunteers? It's almost too easy to protest and too difficult to sit around the table together and talk about justice, humility and patriotism. Rabbi Amital warned us: "Simplistic thinking must be avoided. A person must fight against superficiality and understand the complexity of the world..."
At this season of dedication, what are your doing to serve the public? What are you doing to thank someone who does?