These must be deeply troubling days for you, watching the news, watching the streets. I was talking to a friendly security guard once, and I asked him about his family. He and his wife are both retired police officers who do freelance work. He told me that his son is in a police academy, studying to be an officer. "You must be so proud that he followed in both of your footsteps," I said. He paused, looked at me quite seriously and replied: "No. We told him not to do it. It's a terrible time to be a police officer." That was last year. I cannot imagine how hard it must be to count yourself as part of a police force today.
Jews have always valued the role of the police. We thank you profoundly for your service. In Deuteronomy, we read, "You shall appoint judges and police officers at all your gates that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice," [16:18]. There is something regal about this verse, its weighty assumption that appointing people to guard over justice will ensure a civil society where fairness and safety reign. Immediately preceding this verse is the commandment that Jews celebrate the three major festivals - Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot - with a pilgrimage to the Temple. There, God will bless the people. Two Bible commentators connect these very different verses this way: no matter if you are obligated in the observance of these festivals and will, upon arriving, consult the priests there about Jewish law, "it will not be sufficient unless there are judges and officers at all your gates" [Hizkuni]. In other words, the spiritual world, in order for it to unfold, depends on upholding the integrity of society as a whole. You try to do that for us everyday.
Another interesting connection between these two disparate passages is articulated by the Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin [1816-1893], namely, that blessing will be found when people honor those who judge and assure their safety. If you want a blessed community, make sure that you demonstrate proper respect to those who work for the public good.
Hate to get all scholarly on you, but I wanted to share a modern reading of this verse with you from Jeffrey Tigay. He takes a different approach in hi commentary on Deuteronomy:
Prominence is given to the limits established by God on the rights of each authority. By dispersing authority and prestige among various officials and limiting their powers, Deuteronomy seeks to prevent the development of a single, strong focus of prestige and power. That these limitations are here made known to the public is an important and original feature of the Torah. It lays the ground for public supervision and criticism of human authorities, and prevents them from gaining absolute authority and prestige. Knowledge of these limitations empower citizens to resist and protest abuses of authority.
There are real concerns about abuses of power within the police now. I don't have to tell you that. We see this tension in the interpretation above - is this verse about protecting judges and the police or about protecting the people - makes for lively debate and helps us understand some of the living tensions we are all experiencing in these dark days of episodic protests, riots and violence by police and against them.
Yet, with all the conversations about race and police brutality that are shaking the country, many question the behavior of officers without considering their public service and their safety. Without in any way justifying police violence, in the shadow of Dallas, we all have to feel the sting and irony of this painful situation. Police don't always make us feel safe, and officers like you may not feel safe because protesters are lashing out at you. It makes a mockery of authority. In our ancient Talmudic tradition, we read this: "Pray for the integrity of the government; for were it not for the fear of its authority, a man would swallow his neighbor alive."
We know there are bad police, but that's not who you are. You've given your professional life to the service of our community. Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850), former prime minister of the UK, had this to say about your commitment: "The police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence." We are told in Deuteronomy to appoint officers. It's not enough to appoint police officers. We have to find ways to honor and appreciate you more because you help us live up to our own highest expectations of ourselves.
God bless you,