Of Zealots and Refuge: What perspective can our tradition offer on the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial?

Our tradition sometimes speaks to us in a still, small voice. In a passage from the prophets, God illustrates to the prophet Elijah, Eliyahu HaNavi, where to find God’s presence. God creates a furious wind, but God is not in the wind. God then creates an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake. God then creates a fire, but God is not in the fire. After the fire, there was a Kol D’mamah Dakah, a still, small voice.

I hear and feel that Kol D’mamah Dakah, that still small voice, stirring within me when something resonates with me in a Jewish way. It’s telling me to pay attention, to consider carefully, to try to reach some new understanding based on Jewish teaching.

This week the Kol D’mamah Dakah stirred with the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. How am I to understand this terrible tragedy and the complicated national emotional response from a Jewish perspective?

While there are so many aspects in which this is a difficult story of murder, racial profiling and racial tension and so many questions about the nature of human behavior, the Kol D’mamah Dakah, the Jewish perspective within me has been stirred by trying to determine what to think about two things: George Zimmerman and Stand your Ground Legislation.

If we view George Zimmerman as a zealot, one who is uncompromising in his ideals and willing to act upon them in this case to a violent end, what might we learn from our sacred texts about how to understand the situation? There are many examples of zealotry in our tradition. The prophet Elijah whose story I quoted earlier; Matityahu the Maccabee; and Pinhas. We just read about and studied Pinhas a few weeks ago, his story arrives in Torah near the end of the book of Numbers. The Israelites, still camped in the desert were associating themselves with Moabite women, and God through Moses ordered that the men who consort with Moabite women are to be killed. Upon hearing this order, Moses and the other leaders of the Israelite community wept and sat paralyzed in confusion at the edge of the camp. Pinhas, however, took it upon himself to carry out the order, and he killed the next Israelite man and his Moabite companion that walked together before him. He murdered them. Yet, astonishingly, God rewards Pinhas. God offer Pinhas a Brit Shalom, a covenant of peace, and anoints him the head of the priestly class. God’s wish, which was the law, was on the books. Pinhas in his actions did carry out God’s will. Was God’s will just? Can we question the decree, just as the other leaders of the community who sat weeping at the edge of the camp did? Should we quarrel with the concept of a reward for such behavior? Yes. But the commentators in our tradition wanted to try to understand this Brit Shalom and why God would offer it to a murderer. Why make an example of Pinhas?

The 19th century commentator the Netziv said the Brit Shalom, the covenant of peace, is one of healing. Who needs to be healed? Pinhas. He was violent, he killed both a man and a woman, there would be those who would want to seek revenge, and Pinhas, the zealot, needs to heal. When I think of George Zimmerman, I see that zealot, taking his fear to violent ends and hiding behind the law. Zealots exist, our tradition tells us, and they must be healed of their zealotry, they must not believe that taking matters into their own hands is proper behavior.

And what about that law Zimmerman hid behind, what would our tradition make of Stand Your Ground Legislation and the elimination of the necessity to retreat when you are faced with an aggressor? Again, we read recently in Parashat Masei about the Cities of Refuge. Torah provides law to guard against avenging the murders of loved ones and killing the murderers by creating cities to where the guilty may escape and live undisturbed. Known perpetrators are allowed to retreat because Torah acknowledges the human will to strike revenge is real and strong and must be legislated against, so the avengers don’t put themselves in the position to murder as well. If so much effort is paid to protecting those who have already murdered, it follows in my mind that it would also be necessary to make an effort to protect those who are perceived as threatening. Why? So you don’t put yourself in the position to murder. Don’t stand your ground, don’t attack. Our tradition teaches we must allow all to seek refuge.

The Kol D’mamah Dakah within me is also stirred this week by the words of the prophet Isaiah in this week’s Haftarah. We call this Shabbat Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort. It is the first Shabbat after Tisha B’Av, when we recalled the pain of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the beginning of the exile. Isaiah offers hope and consolation. We too, faced with a national moment such as this, must look for hope and comfort, and pray and work for healing of our nation after the needless death of a young person and in the reality of ongoing racial tension and injustice in our society. We must look for hope and comfort, and pray and work for a world without zealots and with the eternal safety of refuge.

When we have no answers yet feel stirred, we hear the words of the prophet Isaiah echoing this week, “Comfort, comfort my people, says the Eternal. You have suffered enough.” So often we say “Enough.” May hope and progress triumph.