This week's Torah portion begins,
וַיִּהְיוּ֙ חַיֵּ֣י שָׂרָ֔ה מֵאָ֥ה שָׁנָ֛ה וְעֶשְׂרִ֥ים שָׁנָ֖ה וְשֶׁ֣בַע שָׁנִ֑ים שְׁנֵ֖י חַיֵּ֥י שָׂרָֽה׃
"Sarah’s lifetime—the span of Sarah's life—came to one hundred years and twenty years and seven years" (Genesis 23:1).
I have spent the past two week as a juror on a criminal trial where a person was charged with five charges, including murder. (If I haven't responded to your email, this is why!) We were tasked with coming to a unanimous decision about each charge. And as a result, we spent many hours reading through each charge and reviewing the evidence. Throughout the many hours that I spent in deliberations, I kept hearing the echo of this week's parsha.
This is the life of the defendant – each charge charting the years he might spend in prison.
It was devastating to be up so close to so much pain and injustice. It was exhausting to try to come to a unanimous decision with a room full of strangers. And it was incredibly powerful and empowering to know that my vote was essential to the process. It was a profoundly impactful experience that I imagine I will process and preach about more than once.
Torah commentators for thousands of years have been puzzled about the opening line of this week's parsha, Chayei Sarah. Why doesn't it just say, Sarah was 127 years old? Why divide up the years of her life into seemingly random segments? Even my kids, who have been known to be overly exacting when sharing their ages, will say something like, I am 6-and-11/12ths. But never, I am three years and three years old.
There is no one answer. Perhaps these are the notable years in Sarah's life. Starting with the fact that she becomes pregnant at the age of 100. (Undeniably noteworthy!)
As I thought about the defendant on trial, a Black man from North Philly being prosecuted by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, I wondered about the notable years of his life. I wondered how old he was when he first laughed? I wondered how old he was when he was first stopped and frisked? How old was he when he first fell in love? How old was he when he was first arrested? I wondered how many years he has already served? I wondered if he is a parent? I wondered at what age the police stopped assuming that he was no longer innocent until proven guilty?
As many of you know, I am an abolitionist. What this means to me is that I do not believe that police are the answer to community safety. And I do not believe that prisons are means of establishing justice. I welcome your disagreements, debate, and objections to these ideas.
I was distressed but not surprised by my experience of jury duty. (Well, maybe I was surprised by the fact that you don't get a lunch break during deliberations.) But more so I have been surprised by how many members of the KT community have shared with me that they never serve on a jury because they don't pass the initial juror survey.
In my case, the survey asked two questions that essentially wanted to know if I would be inherently biased for or against the testimony of a police officer. Don't get me wrong - I paused. But then I understood that I do believe I am able to listen carefully and assess fully the testimony of any person, including a police officer. Which is not to say I don't hold critiques of our criminal justice system. But I can be critical and still be impartial. As impartial as those who are loyal to the system are able to be. I truly believe this question is designed to intimidate and eliminate potential jurors who might be critical of the police. And sadly, I think it is effective.
Here are some important resources to read and review in advance of any summons for jury duty.
What I feel most strongly from this experience is that I hope you will each do what you can to find yourself on a jury. Our cities need people like each of you, people with integrity and compassion, to be determining the years of someone's life.
May the prayers of our hearts and the words of every Amidah be heard in the highest court:
...מְכַלְכֵּל חַיִּים בְּחֶֽסֶד מְחַיֵּה מֵתִים בְּרַחֲמִים רַבִּים סוֹמֵךְ נוֹפְ֒לִים וְרוֹפֵא חוֹלִים וּמַתִּיר אֲסוּרִים
May the One who sustains the living with compassion, animating all life, supporting those who are falling and healing those who are sick, free all who are imprisoned...speedily and in our days!
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.