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Juneteenth and Torah: Liberation through water

The federal US holiday offers a chance to try to understand how we got so emotionally stagnant – so dry – as to enslave other human beings

There is much midrash and commentary in Jewish tradition about water as healing and purifying on both the spiritual, physical, and emotional levels. The Jewish Exodus culminated in a passage through the water, the Sea of Reeds. Juneteenth also shares a theme with water: on July 19, 1865, enslaved African Americans in Galveston, Texas were finally informed of their freedom granted two years earlier, at the shores of the sediment-rich waters of Galveston Bay. I believe there is no liberation without water.

Dr. Guy Winch, an Israeli psychologist, teaches about emotional hygiene. I liken the concept of emotional hygiene to spiritual hygiene. In adapting Dr. Winch’s definition to the following, “spiritual hygiene is being mindful of our psychological [spiritual] health and adopting brief daily habits to monitor and address psychological [spiritual]wounds when we sustain them.” For example, when we get a wound, we are taught that we must disinfect and treat it so that it will heal. “We don’t know that when we leave an emotional [spiritual] wound untreated, we infect our self-esteem…” and it can spread to others. Our Jewish mystical tradition links emotions with the ten spiritual centers or sefirot. What are some of our recent spiritual/emotional wounds?

We are still reeling from a pandemic. We have lost loved ones. We have remaining fears of contracting the virus or of its lasting effects. What about the isolation? Many lost human touch and in-person connection for almost two years. Many of us mourned loved ones in absentia and via Zoom. Finally, dealing with the trauma of racial violence, increasing polarization, and antisemitism while in a pandemic has taken an emotional/spiritual toll on us all.

Likewise, the Jewish people left the slavery of Egypt, wandered through the desert, and experienced many hardships witnessing their neighbors, friends, and family members die. Our bodies may be standing, but the spirit may be hurting, perhaps even contaminated. Our many water rituals in Judaism seek renewal or transitions in emotional, physical, and spiritual planes, from the mikvah to washing hands for meals or after sleep and washing by Kohanim (descendants of priests) before the priestly blessing.

The ritual waters remind us that we can overcome the contamination of fear and divisions. Perhaps we each need a water ritual to renew us? Maybe the morning hand washing ritual, going to a mikvah, a body of water, a nightly bath, or even a good cry.

The Rebbe [Rayatz] once met a water carrier with buckets full of water and said: “When one encounters water, he should say [in the name of] the Baal Shem Tov: When one encounters water, this is a Siman Bracha (a sign of blessing) or water sign of blessing.

Rabbinic sources tell us that water is a metaphor for Torah because water is a necessity of life and is a transformative substance. But the water must be LIVING, not stagnant.

Stagnant water stands still, trapped, sitting undisturbed for hours or days.

Stagnant water is motionless water not flowing in a stream or current. When a pond becomes inactive, the oxygen levels drop.

I appreciate the three characteristics of living water as adapted from some of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teaching. Water is an adhesive; water is a conveyor; water always seeks the lowest point of a terrain. But how does this relate to people? A dry or stagnant person or system sits undisturbed by harm to people or the environment. A dry human being can’t breathe or live to their full potential, finally when there is little “oxygen” flow spiritually, this can lead to low oxygen physically.

Similarly, a “dry individual is egocentric, stagnant, and jealous of his position. His life is a series of “localized” deeds – deeds and achievements which have no effect beyond their immediate time and place and leave no lasting imprint on their performer. He stands alone, shunning connection and adhesion with his fellows, particularly those inferior to himself.” As well, water always seeks the lowest point of a terrain. Unfortunately, “the solid is a snob. It clings to its station, descending to levels lower than itself only when forcefully dragged down. The liquid naturally flows downward, seeping through the slightest openings to transport itself from the highest elevations to the lowest plains.”

A human being emulating living water is moist, adhesive, able to bond with others, and able to cry for themselves and others. Perhaps the water we need to let flow now are our tears. Let tears of gratitude flow for emerging from COVID alive. Let tears of grief flow for all the ambiguous losses and missed milestones due to the pandemic. Tears of joy as we celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday of remembrance for all Americans.

Flowing is the characteristic of Moses AND Moses Harriet Tubman (known as Moses among African Americans of the times and the only woman in the US to lead an armed military battle). Water is Humble, not high and lofty. Though born in Pharaoh’s house, Moses identified with his people and left it all behind to lead the Exodus and the trials to freedom. Harriet Tubman could have played it safe and stayed in Philadelphia after her escape, yet she went back and risked her life, often in dangerous waters, to free her people, saying, “If I am free, they should be too.”

Sometimes, our relative comfort or freedom can make us unrelatable or unwilling to get our hands dirty. I remember my grandmother’s admonition as a child to never go to the “ghetto or projects” where poor Blacks lived. I remember looking out the window as I rode through neighborhoods looking at people who looked just like me, but I was afraid of them. My mentors Lou Kreinberg, Jane Ramsey, Rabbi Robert Marx, zt”l, Kim Jackson, Yavila Makoy, Tikvah Womak, Rabbi Isaiah Rothstein, and Dr. Harriet Wimms, have taught me and guided me to go back for MY people. I have walked through Cabrini-Green, Robert Taylor Homes, and Lawndale, experiencing the wisdom of people who may not have had the same access to resources, but never had I seen such flowing spirits. I encountered families who sent their children to Harvard, bought houses, and rebuilt fallen structures to restore economic prosperity to areas people had forgotten.

In the movie Harriet, there is a scene where the elegant Black woman business owner born free comments on Harriet’s stench and need for a bath after just returning from rescuing yet another group of enslaved men and women. Harriet asks her, “You were born free?” “Yes”, the woman replies proudly. Harriet replies, “I guess you have not had the stink of fear or of running for your life.” The woman says, “I am sorry, Harriet,” She then draws Harriet a bath, bathes her, and talks with Harriet with a flowing heart.

As we come up on our second official nationwide Juneteenth, let us take care of our spiritual and emotional health, refresh ourselves with Torah’s spiritual waters and build authentic, humble relationships. Perhaps we can find rituals with water that speak to us and help us regain our moistness and flow. Juneteenth is an opportunity to take the time to understand our history and how we got so emotionally stagnant as to enslave other human beings. Then we can rise to do the work of seeing every person as equal and erode (like water) any system that still holds any of us back from flowing like water. May we find more liberation and flow with each passing Juneteenth.

About the Author
Stacey Aviva Flint is a longtime nonprofit and Jewish professional. Stacey has a BA in Political Science from the University of Cincinnati, a Masters of Urban Planning and Public Policy for UIC (CHICAGO), and Certificates in Jewish Leadership and Jewish Education from Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Stacey began her career as the Policy Director for Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs (JCUA), advocating for housing reform, criminal justice, and Jewish/African-American dialogue. Stacey went on to specialize in Economic Development as Senior Director of Real Estate Development for Affordable Housing, Mixed-Use Spaces, Brownfield Redevelopment, and New Market Tax Credit financing. Stacey is passionate about Jewish African American relationship building with current membership Jews of Color initiatives, Alliance4Israel, a board of JFS Colorado, and a member of the Rose Foundation's committee on Jewish Life. In her spare time, she nurtures a college student and a teenager while speaking and writing nationally on Antisemitism and Jews of Color. Most recently, Stacey served as an Executive Director for a synagogue in Colorado and is currently the Director of Education and Community Engagement on the JEDI (Jewish Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion) team for Jewish Federations of North America.
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