David Lerner

Uncovering History – Vayakhel 5784

37 years ago, I got off a bus in New Orleans on Bourbon St. with my old friend and current rabbinic colleague, Eddie Bernstein. 

As teens, Eddie and I were on an amazing summer trip across the country, USY on Wheels. 



Last Sunday I went back to Bourbon St. with Eddie. We walked along Bourbon St., but this time, we came for a very different purpose. 


We came on a civil rights tour with rabbis

 and leaders of the Masorti/Conservative Movement of Judaism including Jews of Color.

After visiting plantations, and museums about slavery, racism, and mass incarceration, I have a deeper understanding of what the real history of the United States is. It’s not the story I learned when I studied American History in high school or college. 

Read 1619. It’s more than the “rest of the story;” it’s kind of THE story.

When I was young, and maybe when some of you were younger, I learned a heroic story of how our founding fathers created a more perfect union. But they created a country that enshrined slavery, that benefited not only the South, but also the North.

Everyone in this country who was wealthy and white benefited, including I am sorry to say, many of the Jews who were here at the time.

This country’s wealth, its cities, its streets, its institutions; in fact, pretty much everything built here until the Civil War, was built by slaves. 

Seeing slavery up close was frightening. 

Every day was a horror for slaves. Abuse that lasted centuries. But it was worse than I knew or even imagined. 

It was not just the initial kidnapping from Africa in the International Slave Trade, but also the domestic slave trade. There was torture, the forced separation of families, and sexual abuse among so many other varieties of mistreatment. 

One reason there was so much sexual violence was due to  greed. The more children born to slaves, the more slaves the master owned. 

Sexual violence translated into money. I had never realized that.

We also spent time learning about the slave codes which dehumanized slaves and blacks in general, whether you were a free black in the North or a slave in the South. 

Wealthy white slaveowners built a system that oppressed not just slaves, but also poor whites. But they got the poor whites to feel superior to someone – at least they were not black. 

Poor whites were hired to be on slave patrols and round up, torture, or kill slaves who tried to run away. Forerunners of the Klu Klu Klux, Klan.

But the teaching of hate became not just an ideology, but they were put into practice just a few years after the Civil War when racism wiped out any chance for a more equal future. 

In the 1890s voting literacy tests were given to blacks to disenfranchise them from voting. 

Let me read some questions:

How many seeds are there in a watermelon?

How many bubbles are in a bar of soap?”

Then came the era of lynchings – for decades blacks were lynched by mobs for almost any reason – for frightening a white person, for annoying them. These are some of the ACTUAL reasons.

And this did not happen only at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century; it went on for decades. 

In 1948, Robert Mallord, a prosperous farmer, was lynched near Lyong, Georgis for the crime of ….. voting. In 1948!

All this hate, fed right into the the Jim Crow laws. But even Brown vs. the Board of Education, the civil rights movement and the Civil Rights Act, did not end pervasive racism and fix the injustices done to blacks. It did not help blacks who suffered. It did not help repair the injustices of redlining which prevented blacks from being able to buy good homes after WWII when suburbia exploded. They were left behind. 

In fact, instead of getting better, it got worse. 

All this led to the mass incarceration of blacks. Just shy of a half a million today. Some for crimes like possessing drugs which are legal today in large swaths of the country.

When you add police abuse to all this, you can see where we are.

I have to say I learned so much more during this week and have shared just a fraction of what I learned.

* * *

Does the Torah abolish slavery? Strangely it doesn’t. Even though the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, it did not abolish it.

Disappointing to say the least. 

But before we judge the Torah, let’s remember that only 3,000 years later did slavery end in our own country.

And it’s important to remember three things about the original text of the Torah. 

First, it is not Judaism. We do not practice exactly what the Torah states. We practice a tradition that is based on the Torah but has evolved and developed over thousands of years.

Second, the Torah is not perfect. 

In many places, its perspective is problematic. And we are not the first ones to see that. 

Our rabbis saw it and changed their interpretations to make it MORE just. A process that continues to this day, especially in our movement in Judaism.

Third, the Torah was not written for today. The Torah was written for the world of thousands of years ago. And for thousands of years ago, it was a revolution

It didn’t abolish slavery, but it gave slaves rights and protections – something that was not true for slaves in our country until the middle of the 19th century.

For example, we read a few weeks ago that if a slave was severely injured, he would have to be freed by his master (Ex 21:26).

The 1705 Virginia slave code, however, it states that masters who injure, or even kill slaves, cannot be prosecuted.

And perhaps the important law the Torah legislates about slavery was that everyone gets Shabbat; everyone gets a day off – whether you were an owner or a slave.

* * *

The mitzvah to observe Shabbat appears throughout the Torah and it appears at the beginning of this week’s reading.

“Sheshet yamim tei’aseh melakhah, for six days, you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat of complete rest, holy to Adonai.”

It’s should be noted that there are two commandments here. One is to rest on Shabbat and the other one is to work the other six days. 

Not “you can work,” but “tei’aseh – you must work.” Even if you are wealthy, find something to do, help someone; you must work.

Rabbi Bernstein pointed me to a commentary by Rabbi Moshe Berger who reminds us that while Shabbat contains the mitzvah to rest, most of the Talmud deals with the other six days, 84% of the days of the week. 

“The Talmud discusses digging ditches, building safe buildings, and paying workers fair and timely wages are just some of the day-to-day activities that help us create responsible and just communities.” 

That’s the Torah that helps us think about how to be engaged in racial justice. By exploring how to make a difference for all races in this country, we start to live up to the values of our tradition.

Our racial justice work and our work with the GBIO – the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization on housing helps the black community and I am proud of Temple Emunah’s efforts and our incredible lay leadership who are championing these causes.

During our Racial Justice Shabbat in January, we heard from people who were formerly incarcerated. They taught us how broken our justice system is. And inspired us to do more.

My trip with Jews of Color helped me appreciate how people of different races experience our country. They invited our group to think about our own biases and how we as a community, and as a shul, welcome Jews of Color.

We have more work to do. Our tradition is not perfect. 

But each generation has come to explore how to make the world a more just place. 

As Jews, we can do that both in our community and in the world.

About the Author
For the past seventeen years, David Lerner has served as the spiritual leader of Temple Emunah in historic Lexington, MA, where he is now the senior rabbi. He has served as the president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis and the Lexington Interfaith Clergy Association. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston, and Emunat HaLev: The Meditation and Mindfulness Institute of Temple Emunah. A graduate of Columbia College and ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner brings to his community a unique blend of warmth, outreach, energetic teaching, intellectual rigor and caring for all ages.
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