Posts Tagged ‘Exodus’

Reparations in Exodus: Parshat Bo

January 24, 2021

It was my turn to give the D’var Torah (commentary on the weekly reading) for my Torah study group at Temple Sinai. This week’s parsha (portion) covered Exodus 10:1 through 13:16. The most prominent parts of Parshat Bo are the dramatic final plagues of darkness and death of the Egyptians’ first-born, and God’s instructions to Moses on how Passover is to be celebrated through the coming generations. But I chose instead to focus on a small part: The Israelites taking valuable items from the Egyptians as they prepare to flee Egypt.

One reference occurs in Exodus 11:1: 

And the Lord said unto Moses… Speak now in the ears of the people, and let them ask every man of his neighbor, and every woman of her neighbor, jewels of silver and jewels of gold. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians. Moreover the man Moses was very great in the land of Egypt, in the sight of Pharoah’s servants, and in the sight of the people. 

The other occurs slightly into next week’s reading, Parshat B’shalach, in Exodus 13:35:

And the children of Israel did according to the word of Moses; and they asked of the Egyptians jewels of silver and jewels of gold and raiment. And the Lord gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they let them have what they asked. And they despoiled the Egyptians.

There is ambiguity in the Hebrew about whether the Israelites are asking to be given or to borrow all this wealth. Robert Alter and JPS translate it as “borrow,” while Soncino translates it as “ask.”  The medieval commentator Rashbam, the grandson of Rashi, interpreted the word as a gift, not a loan.

The Israelites taking the Egyptians’ gold and silver, The Golden Haggadah, f. 13, 1325–1349.

Personally I prefer the translation as “ask,” since it avoids the morally uncomfortable situation of requesting to “borrow” things that were never intended to be returned. So for now let’s assume it is an ask and a gift, not borrowing or a loan.

How then should we understand the decision of the Egyptians to give so many of their valuables to the Hebrews, who until then had been slaves, the lowest of the low?

One likely motivation might have been sheer terror. The Egyptians had just suffered the ten plagues; in the final plague, their oldest sons had been killed. In fact, the Torah tells us that “the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste, for they said, ‘We are all dead men.'” So possibly the Egyptians may have been thinking, “Here, take whatever you want, take everything, just get out the Hell of here before your God does something even worse to us.”

Yet the verses talk about the Israelites finding favor in the eyes of the Egyptians, which seems to be something positive rather than the negative motivation of terror. It implies a relationship of friendship between at least some Egyptians and some Israelites: “every man ask of his neighbor and every woman ask of her neighbor.” It implies a relationship where they lived close to each other: I imagine a Jewish woman crossing her yard to borrow salt or olive oil from the Egyptian woman next door, or an Egyptian man knocking on the door of his Jewish friend for help patching a hole in the roof. 

In this case, perhaps the valuables were given out of personal affection, the way many of us would chip in to help a neighbor whose house had just burned down. Yet that personal connection doesn’t quite seem to cover this situation, since so many Egyptians gave so much—not just blankets or food or even an extra donkey or two, but vast amounts of gold and silver. 

So perhaps the valuable were given because of something broader than personal friendship. The verses talk about Moses being “very great” in the eyes of Pharoah’s advisers and the Egyptian people. That leads me to picture a person with the status of a Martin Luther King Jr., a Nelson Mandela, or a Mahatma Gandhi—a liberator of the oppressed whose integrity, perseverance, and eloquence won the respect even of many who had benefitted from that oppression. The verses talk about “the people finding favor” with the Egyptians, which could imply that the Egyptians understood the Israelites’ collective suffering as slaves and wanted to help them as a group, not just as an individual helping out a neighbor.

Which bring us to the modern-day issue of reparations for slavery and oppression. Could we view the Egyptians’ donations of valuables as a form of reparations for 400 years of unpaid servitude?

There’s a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91A) that indirectly supports such a view.

This story says that in the time of Alexander the Great, the Egyptians summoned the Israelites before Alexander, demanding that they repay the gold and silver that the Israelites had “borrowed” when they fled Egypt many centuries earlier. The sages granted a prominent Jew named Gebiah ben Pesisa permission to advocate for the people of Israel.

Gebiah asked the Egyptians what the evidence was for their claim, and the Egyptians answered that the Torah itself provided their evidence. 

Gebiah responded that he would also bring evidence from the Torah in Israel’s defense. He quoted the sections that talk about the Hebrews’ 430 years of enslavement, and how they left Egypt with 600,000 men, and he demanded back wages from the Egyptians for 600,000 men working for 430 years—which would have been a staggering amount of money.

Alexander turned to the Egyptians for a proper answer. The Egyptians said they’d respond in three days but couldn’t find a satisfactory answer and fled.

Today we as Americans have an opportunity to address the damage caused by 401 years of slavery and its aftermath of systemic racism. The first African slaves were brought here in 1619. Their forced labor didn’t just make individual white landowners rich; they provided the basis for the cotton and textile industry that built and underpinned the economy of our young country. In that sense, we all benefited, even if our ancestors never set foot in the south or owned a slave. 

The abolition of slavery in 1863 didn’t end the inequality and exploitation of Black Americans. Jim Crow laws in the south and discriminatory policies and culture in the north meant that whites have had unfair advantages throughout the past century, up through the present day. 

Many of us who are Jews of European descent have traditionally taken moral comfort in thinking, “My ancestors were poor immigrants who came here in 1880, or 1920, or 1950. I never benefited from slavery or racism.” But in fact, white Jews—even those who came as poor immigrants to the tenements of the Lower East Side—HAVE benefited from what journalist Isabel Wilkerson describes in her recent book as a caste system. 

Because blacks were defined as the “other”—the lowest caste—European Jewish immigrants could define themselves as white. Yes, we faced anti-Semitism but we could also fit under the umbrella of being white. We were allowed to join labor unions, enter elite colleges (albeit with quotas), enter professions, obtain government-backed loans and mortgages, buy homes in many (though not all) white neighborhoods. 

Our immigrant grandparents, just a week off the boat, could apply for entry-level jobs that were not open to Black Americans who had been in this country for 300 years. 

Yes, we were poor immigrants, but we were also white, which gave us privilege. It allowed our grandparents and parents to start accumulating generational wealth—owning a home, building up savings accounts, perhaps investing in stocks—that they could pass on to our generation, either directly or through financing the education that allowed us to become doctors, lawyers, and other professionals.

So even if our ancestors didn’t arrive here until 1920 or 1950, we benefited from these four centuries of subjugation of Black people. We have a moral obligation to take part in repairing that damage: The word “reparations” comes from the word “repair.”

There has been so much written on this in the past few years, including Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal 2014 essay in The Atlantic. I can’t possibly do it justice in a short commentary. If you’d like to learn more about the history of systemic racism and the idea of reparations, there are many resources including Coates’ essay, Wilkerson’s Caste, and Richard Rothstein’s book The Color of Law.

There was also a terrific d’var Torah on reparations in this week’s email from the Union of Reform Judaism. Or see the URJ’s 2019 statement on reparations.

Over the past four years, we watched a presidential administration try to turn back the clock on civil rights. My hope with this week’s new administration is that, instead, we can enter into a national discussion of how to repair the economic and social damage done by slavery and institutionalized racism. 

It’s not just about giving people money. It’s not about expiating guilt. The gold and silver given by the Egyptians to the freed Israelites ended up providing the building materials for the tabernacle. So those Egyptian treasures were a kind of capital used to launch a new society—they helped take the Hebrews further than they’d ever been before—beyond that single family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, beyond twelves tribes—into the creation of an actual nation with a distinct and revolutionary monotheism and culture. Those Egyptian reparations helped build a new and better society. 

Similarly, a plan for American reparations should be something that acknowledges past oppression and uses that understanding to build something new and larger and better. Something that will provide more opportunity, dignity, and security for the broad community of Black Americans, and in so doing a better and more inspiring country for white Americans too. 

Let us move from a shehecheyanu for reaching this inaugural week, to a yihi ratzon for racial justice:

May it be God’s will. 

Between Two Worlds, and a question about the nature of Judaism

August 4, 2011

Yesterday I saw Between Two Worlds, a new documentary about dissent and division within the Jewish community, by the talented Berkeley filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow.

The screening was part of the 31st annual San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and the festival itself was featured in the documentary — in particular, the brouhaha two years ago when the festival aired a film about the pro-Palestinian American activist Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli bulldozer while protesting the demolition of homes in Gaza.

Filmmakers Deborah Kaufman and Alan Snitow in Jerusalem

There’s enough food for discussion in this movie to fill a month of blog posts. It skips hither and yon within today’s American Jewish community, from a somewhat snippy take on the Birthright program that arranges free tours of Israel for young Jews, to a classically overheated debate at U.C. Berkeley over boycotting Israel, to a particularly troubling segment on plans by the L.A.-based Museum of Tolerance to build a branch of the museum on top of a seven-century-old Arab cemetery in Jerusalem. (Unbelievable!)

One of the things I liked the most was the way Deborah and Alan wove their own families’ stories into the mix. Deborah’s father was a refugee from Nazi Germany who became a a very active Zionist, only to have one of his daughters convert to Islam. Alan knew his mother as a suburban housewife and liberal activist with the American Jewish Congress — only to discover, after her death, that she had been a member of the U.S. Communist Party for over a decade as a young woman.

Deborah and Alan’s narratives about these opposite-yet-parallel parents were nuanced, compassionate, and filled with unanswerable questions. Every time the film returned to them, I felt my shoulders relax and imagined my blood pressure dropping — a welcome change from the dire “us versus them” rhetoric that permeated the sections about politics and public debate.

But none of that is what I want to write about.

What I want to write about was one small question raised in Between Two Worlds:

Is Judaism inherently a liberal religion?

This is something that has crossed my mind a lot in the past year or so. Historically, American Jews have been overwhelmingly liberal — voting Democratic and supporting progressive causes such as civil rights, feminism, anti-war movements, and organized labor.

But how much of this is inherent to Judaism as a religion and culture? And how much is due to the specific historical experience of American Jews over the past hundred or two hundred years?

There is certainly a large progressive strain within Judaism-the-religion. The central story of all Judaism is the Exodus, a flight from slavery.  The Torah and Talmud tell us repeatedly: “Treat the stranger as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And the voices of the Jewish Prophets are often progressive voices. On Yom Kippur we read a passage from Isaiah in which God excoriates the Jews for carrying out religious rituals while neglecting social justice:

Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?

No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

Okay. That’s the Judaism I know and love. BUT….

It’s also possible to interpret Torah in a way that looks nothing like Freedom Seders and marches against genocide. Consider the ultra-Orthodox — basing their entire lives around Judaism, but in a way that rarely touches on the concerns or needs of anyone outside their immediate, insular community.

And Israel today… With the right wing holding the political reins, the country seems to be stepping down a road that veers increasingly away from democracy and civil liberties. The Knesset recently made it illegal to advocate boycotting goods from Israel or the Occupied Territories. Last year the Israeli Cabinet approved a law that, for the first time, required non-Jewish candidates for citizenship to swear a loyalty oath. Right-wing politicians have been trying to hold McCarthy-like hearings on groups involved in progressive issues such as civil rights, women’s rights, and religious pluralism.

Maybe the liberal heart of Judaism that I’ve always taken for granted is a mere historical blip. Our grandparents and great-grandparents suffered pogroms; they toiled in garment sweatshops; they crossed borders legally and illegally in search of better lives.

When those generations are a distant memory, will Jewish liberalism also become a memory?


Note: Between Two Worlds will be showing at the Roxie Cinema in San Francisco from August 5th through the 11th. Alan Snitow and Deborah Kaufman will field questions after the Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening shows. Whether you end up agreeing with the filmmakers’ perspective or not, I promise it will give you something to talk about afterwards over a glass of ________ (wine, beer, coffee, tea, Slivovice, you fill in the blank).

And for an interesting take on the rise of the right in Israel, see this piece by Liel Leibovitz in Tablet magazine.

Meet my Torah portion!

December 8, 2009

It bodes poorly that I can’t find my Bat Mitzvah notebook.

It’s here in my office somewhere. The problem is that a lot of other things are here too: Eight rolls of Chanukah, birthday and willfully nonsectarian winter-snowman wrapping paper. Gifts, gift boxes, and the shipping boxes that the gift boxes came in. Folders about real estate. Folders about insurance. Recipes. A three-foot-high exercise ball. Holiday card mailing labels….

I haven’t posted much Bat Mitzvah news recently since I’ve been distracted by life – the holiday season, some freelance work, and negotiations to buy a beach house together with two other families.

I’ve had two meetings so far with my rabbi. And last week, I spoke with the cantor and found out my Torah portion.

(Ah ha! The notebook – there under the snowman wrapping paper. So now I can tell you what the portion is.)

It’s Vayakhel, otherwise known as Exodus 35:1 to 38:20.

In Judaism, a different section of the Torah is read aloud each week as part of Shabbat services. Reform Judaism cycles through the entire Torah every year, so the date of my Bat Mitzvah service determines which Torah portion I will learn to chant and will address in my drash or sermon.

I’m going to get to know this one little piece of the Bible very well.

Already, before even reading it, I’m on a first-name basis with it. Or would that be a first-word basis? Torah portions are identified by the first word they contain – so vayakhel refers to the opening word in Exodus 35 and means “and he gathered together.”

So I pick up Robert Alter’s recent English translation of The Five Books of Moses to skim my portion.

I begin with excitement: Will I find some personal connection in here? Something that speaks directly to my deep inner self — a Ouija board message or Meyers-Briggs test result from 3,000 years ago?

My excitement continues with some glimmers of recognition: This portion has Moses. The “he” in he gathered together is none other than Moses. And Moses is hot stuff, a Biblical rock star, hero of the Passover story; Steven Spielberg even made a movie about him.

Moses is apparently gathering the Hebrews together, out in the desert at Mt. Sinai, in the wake of the Golden Calf fiasco. He’s telling them that their task is to build a tabernacle or container for the two stone tablets with the Ten Commandments.

To oversee the work he appoints another name I know – Bezalel, a talented artisan who in the 20th century was selected as namesake for the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, the Israeli equivalent of the Rhode Island School of Design. That seems pretty cool too.

But then the coolness quotient starts to drop. It turns out that my portion is… one long description of how to build a tabernacle. Cubit by cubit. Socket by socket. Peg by peg. Reddened ram’s skin by goat-hair panel.

For pages and pages and pages.

Even Robert Alter seems bored. Most pages of his translation have two or three footnotes at the bottom, explaining interesting points about the text. My portion has two pages that go on and on without a single footnote. “The text now launches upon one of its most extravagant deployments of verbatim repetition,” Alter writes.

I complain to my husband Sam that my Torah portion is essentially a parts list for a Biblical construction project.

“Those are the good ones,” he says. “They’re obscure and there’s lots of good midrashic commentary on them.”

This is in fact a common Bat and Bar Mitzvah experience. Most people know the dramatic stories of the Bible, but there’s a lot of it that is not really narrative. It’s construction, or prescription, or legislation – for instance, Moses telling the Jews all the things they should or shouldn’t do. 

So no instant time-warp Ouija board epiphany for me, unless it’s something about decorating our new beach house with goat’s-hair panels and reddened ram skin tents.

This will take work. But Sam’s right – an obscure portion means I will have to be more creative and resourceful in interpreting it. I will really have to wrestle with it.

I’m looking forward to this.