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The death of Eric Garner. . .  The events of last Wednesday and days dealt a blow to the sensibilities of New Yorkers. We are a nation of laws, and cannot simply form lynch mobs to carry out vigilante justice. At the same time, we have the right to expect that those responsible for a death of this nature would have to answer for their actions in a court of law. And in turn, those accused have the right to explain and defend themselves as well. The failure of the Staten Island Grand Jury to issue an indictment for the officers responsible for the chokehold death of Eric Garner, particularly after the Medical Examiner ruled this death a homicide, is inexplicable and shocking to many of us. As a city, and as people of good will, indeed, it took our breath away.

The breath of life. . . Our ability to breathe plays a profound role in the Jewish understanding of human life. It is the fundamental sign of life itself. It grows out of the belief that after God created the first human beings, God breathed life into them through their nostrils. God formed the human from the dust of the earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being. (Genesis 2.7). 

 The soul of everything alive. . . One of the prayers within our Shabbat morning liturgy in known by its opening words, Nishmat Kol Chai – The soul of everything alive…. The literal translation is everything that breathes. Sometimes the word neshamah is taken to mean spirit, or soul (as in the Yiddish expression, “a gitte neshumeh” – a good soul). The Nishmat Kol Chai is recited within the Pesukei d’Zimra, Verses of Praise, one of the introductory sections of the Morning Service before the formal liturgy begins with the Barechu, the call to prayer. It was written sometime between the late 2nd and early 3rd centuries CE. It is a beautiful prayer. It appears in Mishkan T’filah in the following translation (p.219):

Let the soul of everything alive bless Your name, Adonai, our God;
and the spirit of all flesh glorify and exalt Your name forever, O Sovereign.
Transcending space and time, You alone are God.
We have no Sovereign beside You.
God of the first and the last, God of all creatures,
Master of all generations, who is praised in a multitude of praises,
who guides the world with abundant loving-kindness,
and all creatures with mercy. Adonai neither slumbers nor sleeps.
God awakens the sleeping, arouses those who slumber,
gives speech to the mute;
and God loosens the bonds of captives, God supports the fallen,
and strengthens those who are bent over.
You alone do we acknowledge.

An adaptation. . .   Last Friday, an adaptation of Nishmat was sent out to the Hebrew Union College community last Friday, and forwarded to me by Student Cantor Emma Goldin. It was written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat of Congregation Beth Israel of the Northern Berkshires. Emma and I hope that it may bring even a small measure of comfort during this painful and troubled time. We hope that in the weeks and months ahead, our city and our country will find the courage and strength to take a long, hard look at our attitudes toward one another, and find new and creative ways to address and shore up the racial divisions that exist between us. 

Prayer After Eric Garner

Nishmat Kol Chai / Breath of All Life:
Your breath enlivened the first man,
You breathe
the breath of life in each of us.
Today our breath is shortened
as we remember Eric Garner gasping
“I can’t breathe,” an elbow pressed
around his neck.
Breathe into us
determination to build a better world
where no innocent is killed
by those sworn to serve and protect.
Ignite us toward justice.
Eric Garner was made in Your image.
His six children, bereaved: in Your image.
Every black man, woman, and child
twenty times likelier to be killed by police
than their white neighbors:
in Your image.
Help us to root out from every heart
the hidden prejudice
which causes police to open fire in fear,
which transforms a child in a hoodie
into a hoodlum, a person into a threat.
Comfort the families of all who grieve.
Strengthen us to work for a world redeemed.
And we say together: Amen.