Shabbat Candlelighting 9:01 p.m.                                             Friday, June 17, 2011/15 Sivan 5771

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This week’s parasha, Shelach Lecha, is sadly relevant in light of the terrible violence and mayhem that our city witnessed in the wake of the final Stanley Cup playoff game. The parasha recounts the story of the spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan. The spies come back sharing that the land is one of “milk and honey”, but that it is occupied by enemies the Israelites cannot overcome. Two spies, Joshua and Caleb, weigh in with a minority report that supports the Israelites destiny to conquer the land.

At one point, a group of the people defy Moses’ direction and storm the land of Canaan, even though Moses warns them that God is not with them. In short, they lose control and act like a mob, disrespectful of authority and heedless of the risk to their own lives. It sounds a lot like what we saw on our television screens Wednesday evening.

The riot that shattered our city’s sense of self will be the subject of analyses and commentaries for a long time to come, and I’m certainly no expert on the sociology of what happened, but, I do want to share some observations.

In the mayor’s televised interview Wednesday night, and in his and others’ official statements, it has been reported that some number of individuals came into the crowds that evening with plans in place to incite violence. Judging from everything we’ve witnessed, I certainly have no reason to doubt those claims. Hopefully, those principal actors will be identified, caught and brought to justice for the harm they have caused.

More striking to me, was the clear evidence that a great number of people simply got caught up in the carnival atmosphere, lost self-control, and joined in. They broke windows and looted stores, fed the fires and taunted the police. Many simply stayed around to watch or get their pictures taken. They knew what was going on around them was wrong, but they neither left to ensure their own safety and to make the job of dealing with the real perpetrators easier for the authorities, nor intervened to stop others around them. To me, the most painful thing I witnessed was the number of people who stood by as evil was done around them. With our distinctive history throughout the centuries, that felt like all too familiar a phenomenon.

I’ve thought a lot about the reaction of the police authorities. Charged with public safety, they faced a terrible set of dilemmas. It is certainly not for me to critique their performance, and I’m sure the city will go through a full and serious review. But, I would note that it seemed clear to me that they acted with conscious determination to preserve life above all else, even the lives of those engaged in criminal and dangerous activity. There is no question in my mind that had the police acted earlier with greater force, they might well have quelled the violence earlier. But, I also believe there would have been many more injuries, and likely fatalities. Property was damaged, and that must be reckoned with. It is quite amazing, when you think about all that happened, that there was not a single fatality.

I’ve heard many people question why more force wasn’t used to end the riot quicker. When I think about the societies in this world where that unquestionably would have happened, they are autocratic countries without the freedoms we so cherish. No question, there are people who abused those freedoms Wednesday night. In the midst of the chaos, thoughtful decisions were made that focused on preserving life. As upset as we are about what the riot may tell us about the society we are living in, that is worth thinking about.

The way things unfolded Wednesday night was a reflection of the instant communication environment in which we live. I suspect that many people stayed downtown in the chaos because the urge to capture the images was too powerful to resist. The opportunity to document history in the making is now a nearly universal one. As we saw, it has both positive and negative implications. The negative implications we saw Wednesday night; people were posing for pictures, and clogging the streets that police desperately needed cleared so fire crews and ambulances could get where they were needed. The pictures and videos also captured images of perpetrators who may now be more easily identified and brought to justice. For example, Facebook sites have been set up to identify images of people engaged in criminal activity.

There have been some beautiful responses in the wake of the riot. There are the citizens who headed downtown to volunteer to help clean up. There are many moving and heartfelt graffiti messages inscribed on the boards covering shattered windows along West Georgia Street. There were the two irrepressible young woman holding up “free hugs” signs at the Vancouver City Centre Canada Line station yesterday evening. There are, I’m sure, many more examples. These are acts of people engaged in conscious acts of goodness, and these people are a blessing to our city.

Parasha Shelach Lecha ends with the commandment to wear tzitzit – fringes on our garments, with a blue thread attached. The tzitzit are to be physical reminders to us to resist lustful urges and to remember God’s commandments. The urge to get swept up in a mob scene is powerful and hard to resist. That urge is as ancient as our tradition and, I guess, inherent in human nature. As our city picks up the pieces and moves ahead, it will be worth thinking about the physical reminders that can help everyday people to remember to act like menschen in the midst of chaos.

Shabbat Shalom!

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