Who by water and who by [police] fire?

The Unetaneh Tokef prayer is unique to the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy. The first line is variously translated as ‘We shall ascribe holiness to this day” and “Let us speak of the awesomeness.” The poem contains the imagery of the book of life opening on Rosh Hashanah, and being sealed on Yom Kippur. A translation of the poem can be found in this blog post by Rabbi Reuven Hammer.

For our Rosh Hashanah service this year, Deb Kraus wrote this powerful introduction to the Unetaneh Tokef.

From last high holy days to today, how many African American people have died by police fire?

For smoking an e-cigarette, like Alfredo Olango

For reaching for a gun, like Che Taylor
For just having a gun, like Michael Moore and Nicholas Robertson and Corey Jones.
Or for refusing to drop a gun, like Sahlah Ridgeway and Sylville Smith

For waiting for his son’s schoolbus to arrive, like Keith Lamont Scott.
For having his car stall out, like Terence Crutcher
For speeding, like Moses Rubin and Doll Pierre-Louis
For riding a motorcycle, like Terrence Sterling
For stealing a car, like Paul O’Neal
Or for stealing an officer’s car, like Paterson Brown, Jr.

For running away from the cops, like Dalvin Hollins and Deravis Caine Rogers and Jabril Robinson and Rodney Watts and Akiel Denkins and Calin Roquemore and Ricky Ball and Jessica Williams and Miguel Espinal and Donte Taylor and 13 year old Tyre King.
Or for approaching the cops, like Christopher Goodlow and Javario Eagle

For shooting himself in his own wheelchair, like Jeremy McDole.
For being schizophrenic, bipolar, suicidal or mentally impaired in some other way, like James Anderson and Janet Wilson and Joseph Mann and Jawari Porter and Kevin Matthews and Carlumandarlo Zaramo and Tyler Gebhard.

For trying to help a neighbor, like Bettie Jones
For faking a prescription, like Keith McLeod
For selling CDs outside a convenience store, like Alton Sterling
For damaging a traffic sign, like Peter Gaines
And for road rage, like Delrawn Small and Clarence Howard.

For “refusing to cooperate” like Cameron Glover and Gregory Frazier and Nathaniel Pickett and Darnell Wicker, who, BTW, was probably deaf…
OR For doing everything the police said, like Philando Castile
For sitting in his bedroom looking threatening, like Levonia Riggins
Or trying to protect her five year old child in her own home, like Korryn Gaines.
For looking like someone else, like Colby Friday and Donnell Thompson, Jr.
For engaging in “suspicious activity,” like Dazion Flenaugh and David Joseph, and Greg Gunn
For fighting back, like Kevin Hicks and Junior Prosper
For turning around too quickly, like Antronie Scott

For panicking, like all the people above, Blue AND Black…

Although, a sign I saw Saturday summed it up:
“We live in a world where trained cops can panic and act on impulse but untrained civilians must remain calm with a gun in their face.”

Notice race was not mentioned in that last quote. I’ll say it again:

“We live in a world where trained cops can panic and act on impulse but untrained civilians must remain calm with a gun in their face.”

I know that none of these situations are as straightforward as I have presented it.

But this year, as we pray the Unetaneh Tokef, let us really try to comprehend the myriad ways those who have pledged to serve and protect can instead cause people to die by fire, just because of the color of their skin.

–Deb Kraus

For a long reflection on Unetaneh Tokef, written by Rabbi Toba Spitzer, for Rosh Hashanah 5762 (Sept. 18, 2001), please go here.