This June I took a trip down south, inspired by a conversation I had with a Baptist minister friend last summer in Jerusalem. We had visited Yad Vashem earlier that day, along with other participants on a study tour for Christian clergy. I’ve come to expect participants to react with grief, horror and anguish each time we visit. But my friend confessed experiencing something I had not heard before – envy.
He hesitated in sharing his reflection with me, knowing how insensitive it might sound. He confessed to envying our ability as Jews to know and to document our history (albeit largely due to the fanatic documentation of our Nazi killers). He told me that as a Black man, he didn’t know – and would probably never be able to learn – the history of his family and people. When your ancestors are kidnapped and stolen, when their identities are forever erased, you can’t know who you are or where you come from. You can’t share your story, and you can’t experience the compassionate support of others bearing witness to your trauma, as I do each time Christian friends accompany me to Yad Vashem. I was pained by this realization. So, I headed to Alabama, determined to learn what I could of his people’s story – which I quickly realized that as an American, was also my story.
Knowing and transmitting our story is so fundamental to our identity as Jews that we remind ourselves of the commandment to do so, not only once a year on Pesach, but three times each and every day when we recite the Shema. And it is not just our collective story that we tell and retell. As we enter Elul, we begin the ritual of exploring and understanding our individual stories as well. We immerse ourselves in the past not as an academic exercise but as a way to inform our future. We examine our past actions; we wrestle with what we’ve done and who we’ve been this last year, to help us be better, more ethical beings in the coming year.
But is this a process we should be immersing ourselves in as Americans? The reality is that we’ve fallen woefully short in learning the fullness of our history and understanding its implications for our present, and future. As so many of us are now learning – from the extraordinary 1619 project of the NY Times, among other recent publications – as Americans, we have utterly failed to face the ugly and uncomfortable truths of our nation’s history. And this failure has kept us from living up to what we like to think of as our country’s ideals.
No one has embraced this insight more thoughtfully than Bryan Stevenson, the Harvard trained lawyer who has dedicated his life to compelling justice for Black, Brown and impoverished people condemned by a racist criminal justice system. He understands that for Americans to achieve authentic teshuvah (not his word!) we have to face our history, in all its ugliness and horror. So he spearheaded a massive project to expose the hidden history of racial terror lynchings, meticulously documenting the brutal murders of 4400 African American men, women and children, in the new National memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which we visited. And with his organization, the Equal Justice Initiative he created the Legacy Museum, just a few blocks away, in a former warehouse where enslaved people were once and which is now emblazoned with the words of Maya Angelou, “ History, despite its wrenching pain, Cannot be unlived, But if faced with courage, need not be lived again”.
But lest you think that you are learning about a chapter of history neatly tucked into our past, the museum powerfully demonstrates that slavery never ended, it just evolved, through the years of lynchings, and Jim Crow, to the current phenomenon of mass incarceration. In the words of Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent man, who was exonerated with Stevenson’s help, after serving 28 years on Death Row for a crime he did not commit, “The executions moved indoors, they took off white robes and put on black ones.”
These sins are central to our origin story as Americans, and their toxic impact have been felt ever since. The shameful legacy of slavery has seeped into virtually every aspect of America, in the words of Nikole Hannah-Jones , a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. We take great pride in the Declaration of Independence proclaiming that “all men are created equal”, “endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights”, while ignoring the fact that the drafters of that document did not believe those words to apply to fully one-fifth of the country. They themselves either held slaves or condoned those who did.
Our economy – and not just in the South – was built on the foundation of enslaved labor and our social policy was engineered to create and sustain segregation and a racial divide. To be clear, we are not just talking about the distant past. Black Americans were excluded from the opportunities provided by the New Deal and the GI Bill; federal housing policies created ghettos and kept Black Americans from owning their own homes. And the racial wealth gap remains an unbridgeable chasm, In Boston alone, the median net worth of White household is $247,500, while for Black families it is $8. (No, that is NOT a typo – it’s simply a formula of subtracting debts from assets.)
IF there is any good news to share (and that’s a big “if), it’s the growing recognition of the need for a moral reckoning with our American past. We are witnessing the stirring of moral imagination about an American teshuvah, a way to reclaim the soul of our country.
The writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in his landmark 2014 article “The Case for Reparations” offers a blueprint, which has now found its way into our political discourse. He begins by citing a passage from Deuteronomy about the release of an Eved Ivri, a Hebrew servant, V’chi t’shal’che’nu chof’shi, lo t’shalche’nu rai’kam”“And when you free him, you shall not let him go away empty handed. You shall furnish him liberally from your flock, threshing floor and winepress, with which the Lord your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you. Therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today”.
Though this Biblical precedent makes a powerful case for the consideration of reparations for slavery and oppression, I want to suggest an alternative and perhaps more far reaching verse, found in the next chapter of Deuteronomy– and repeated so often in progressive circles that it sometimes inspires cynicism, “Tzedek tzedek tirdof”, “Justice justice shall you pursue”. Many commentators have weighed in on the repetition of the word justice. But the verse is striking, not only in its repetition of tzedek, but also in its use of the word lirdof, (pursue) the only time in the Torah when that verb is used to denote something other than a physical pursuit. And perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that it’s used in connection with a mitzvah, an act we’re generally commanded to see to its completion. But here we are told simply to pursue, perhaps an acknowledgment of the reality that true justice is elusive and can never be fully attained, at least not in this world.
Justice requires a pro-active stance. There are some mitzvoth we fulfill when the opportunity presents itself; the sun sets on Friday, we observe Shabbat. We eat a meal and observe the laws of kashruth. Not so with justice, where we have to be vigilant and scrupulous in discerning potential injustice and addressing it. This parsha instructs us in the building of an infrastructure to anticipate the need for a justice system, beginning with the careful selection of the most qualified shoftim and shotrim, magistrates and officials, to govern the people with due justice.
These chapters of Deuteronomy are rife with examples of how justice should be meted out, to build a civil society where the rule of law is respected, and freedom and equality are uplifted. Those who adjudicate must be highly ethical and beyond reproach, punishments are to be doled out in proportion to the crimes (an eye for an eye). Those who unwittingly kill are to be provided with refuge and safeguarded from vigilante justice. Borders are to be respected and protected. And capital punishment is to be imposed only in the most extraordinary circumstances, with the testimony of two or more eyewitnesses.
Though I admittedly am neither a lawyer or Talmud scholar, from what I understand, systems of justice are generally based on case law. Very specific instances are cited, and debates about proper adjudication ensue. So what would the pursuit of justice mean in the context of centuries of criminal behavior on the part of a nation, beginning with theft and enslavement and continuing through a multiplicity of offenses though the ages, with damages of unimaginable magnitude to millions of people? If we could ever come to terms with our collective sin as Americans, what would real teshuvah entail?
Coates – now joined by an increasing number of others – points to the concept of reparations. He points out that, “closing the ‘achievement gap’ will do nothing to close the ‘injury gap’, which requires different remediation. Coates is clear that “wrestling publicly with these questions matters as much as – if not more than – the specific answers that might be produced. … More important than any single check cut to any African American, the payment of reparations would represent America’s maturation out of the childhood myth of its innocence into a wisdom worthy of its founders”. He understands that justice is elusive, and that the best we can do, is to pursue it.
Far from being radical or unknown to us, the concept of reparations is actually part of our foundational story as Jews,, as argued by Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein. In fact, it is alluded to in the passage that Coates uses for proof text. Why is it that we cannot send out an Eved Ivri empty handed? Because we were slaves in Egypt. And when we left, we did so bi’r’chush gadol, we left with great wealth; the silver, gold and clothing of the Egyptians. In an act essential for our full liberation, we claimed the wages denied to us when we were enslaved – and we did so, at God’s command. The rabbis of the Talmud fully understood that the spoils the Israelites were commanded to take were reparations for years of slave labor. This sacred act was part of the Divine plan right from the start. When God foretold Abraham about the enslavement of the Jewish people, God specified that they would ultimately leave bi’r’chush gadol”, with great wealth. It was that wealth that allowed them to build the mishkan, and ultimately to found a free society.
In the heated and all too divisive debates about the issue of reparations in our country, some question whether those alive today are implicated – or should bear any responsibility – for harm inflicted centuries ago. I could enumerate the multiple ways in which White Supremacy endures, or perhaps point to ways in which those of us who are White benefit regularly from racial privilege. But instead I’ll end with a curious passage from a bit later in Deuteronomy.
Chapter 21 opens with the description of an unknown murder victim lying in the field “in the land that the Lord your God bequeaths to you”. The slayer is not known. But in an affirmation of collective responsibility for evil that occurs in proximity to one’s community, the elders of the nearest town are commanded to undertake an elaborate ritual, involving the breaking of a heifer’s neck and the following declaration: Ya’dey’nu lo shaf’chu et ha’dam hazeh, v’eineinu lo ra’u.” Our hands did not shed this blood, nor did our eyes see it done. Absolve Oh Lord your people Israel whom you redeemed and do not let guilt for the blood of the innocent remain among your people’…”
So, when the sinner is unknown, the entire community is commanded to atone. All are implicated in the wrongdoing – perhaps for not identifying the culprit, perhaps for enabling the brutality to occur, perhaps for remaining silent in the face of evil. Our teshuvah is both as individuals and as a collective. Our recitation of the vidui of Yom Kippur is in the plural; ashamnu, bagadnu, gazalnu. We confess and atone for the sins committed by our entire community.
How might we approach our teshuvah as American Jews in 2019? How might we pursue justice, knowing that we will never fully attain this elusive goal? As American and as Jews, how can we set about to achieve what Coates calls a “moral reckoning and spiritual awakening”? My immersion into my friend’s – and as it turns out my own – history has provided me with a new set of questions to wrestle with as I prepare for the Yamim Nora’im this year. I do not expect to have answers anytime soon.
(adapted from a D’var Torah at the Newton Centre Minyan)