Posts Tagged ‘social justice’

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. 

Sodom — the sin is not what you think it is

November 11, 2011

Blogger Reb Jeff (alias Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser of Congregation Beit Ha Yam in Stuart, Florida) had a post today that I really liked, so I thought I’d share it with you. You can find the original and the rest of his insightful, inspiring blog at Reb Jeff. (P.S. I added the photo.)

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Vayera: The Children of Sodom

I don’t usually talk about politics on the pulpit. In general, it strikes me as arrogant to claim to know “the Jewish position” on any policy choice our society faces. The rabbis of the Talmud could not agree with each other on the issues of their own day, so how can we imagine that we know what positions they would take on immigration reform, tax policy or gun control? Yet, even if Judaism cannot dictate specific policies, Judaism can teach us values that will guide us as we struggle to find the best way to shape our society.

This week’s Torah portion (Vayera), I believe, has something important to say to us about the values we apply when weighing the needs of the individual against the needs of society as a whole. There are lessons for us in the Torah about the way we think about wealth and its obligations.

We are presented this week with the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. In Christian tradition, the sin of Sodom is identified with sexual transgression. However, in Judaism, the emphasis is quite different. In forming their interpretation of the story, the rabbis read a passage from the prophet Ezekiel:

Behold, this was the sin of your sister, Sodom—arrogance! She and her daughters had their fill of bread and untroubled contentment. Yet, she did not support the poor and needy. In their haughtiness they committed abomination before Me. That is why I took them away when I saw it. (Ezekiel 16:49-50)

To the rabbis, the sin of the Sodomites was not sodomy, as it is in Christianity. Rather, it was the sin of haughty greed. The rabbis embellished this image of Sodom and Gomorrah with midrashic legends about their selfishness:

After a while, travelers avoided these cities, but if some poor devil was betrayed occasionally into entering them, they would give him gold and silver, but never any food, so that he was bound to die of starvation.  Once he was dead, the residents of the city came and took back the marked gold and silver which they had given him, and they would quarrel about the distribution of his clothes, for they would bury him naked.(Ginsburg, Legends of the Jews, 1:247).

Photo by CatholicLane.com

It should be painfully obvious how to apply this teaching to our own society. We, in the contemporary developed nations, are living in the most affluent society the world has ever known. The comfortable among us toss around miraculous electronic gadgets as if they were toys (I’m typing on one right now), and we are so used to the luxuries of modern life that we have come to think of them as necessities. Yet, we live oblivious to the poverty next door to us.

In the relatively affluent Florida county where I live, almost 15% of the population is at or below the poverty line. Almost 30% of children live in poverty. Thousands in our community live with hunger as a daily experience in the midst of wealth that would have made the pharaohs blush. Across North America, you do not have to go far to find today’s Sodoms.

The rabbis teach in the Mishnah (Avot 5:10) that there are four types of people: the ordinary people who say, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours,” the foolish people who say, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine,” the pious people who say, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours,” and the wicked people who say, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.”

Which of these four is the type we would find in Sodom? One might be tempted to say that it is the fourth type—the wicked people who lay claim to everyone’s possessions. Curiously, though, the Mishnah says that it is the first type—the ordinary sort of people who neither share what is theirs nor claim what belongs to others. What is wrong with that kind of “ordinary” thinking?

Our society did not become a place where real poverty and extreme wealth live side-by-side because of rapacious robber barons. Rather, we are a society shaped by the ordinary behaviors of people who believe they are entitled to keep what is theirs and “let everyone else do the same.” It is this attitude that is the recipe for Sodom. In such a society, the prevailing rule becomes “each man for himself” and the prevailing attitude toward the poor becomes “they have none to blame but themselves.” Such ordinary, common evil is what the rabbis so much wanted to warn us against.

I cannot claim that Jewish tradition has specific policies to recommend to us for the creation of a more open-hearted and caring society. After all, there is no prescription in the Torah for the right tax code or the right welfare policy for our times. However, I can say that the rabbis have warned us against building a society on policies that focus more on property rights than on the obligation to care for each other. I ask you to think about the way that contemporary politics puts so much emphasis on keeping the hands of government off of the wealth of the wealthy, and so little emphasis on the immorality of allowing people to go hungry. When you do, consider that we have become the children of Sodom.