Dear TEE Community,

The Reconstructionist prayer book contains a version of the Aleinu prayer which states, “It is up to us to meet the World, to embrace the Whole even as we wrestle with its parts.” Embracing, loving, and appreciating the whole of our history and community does not negate the obligation to wrestle with those parts which disturb and discomfort us. This week’s Torah portion involves such a part – laws concerning slavery.

Leviticus 25 limits the servitude of Israelites to a period of indenture, ending with the Jubilee year, stating, “For they are my servants, whom I brought out of the land of Egypt; they shall not be sold as slaves are sold (Lev. 25:42).” However, this does not apply to non-Israelites, including those resident within the community:

As for the male and female slaves whom you may have, it is from the nations around you that you may acquire male and female slaves. You may also acquire them from among those [non-Israelites] residing with you, and from their families that are with you, who have been born in your land; and they may be your property. You may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property (Lev. 25:44-46).

Reading these verses, I find myself wanting to counter my discomfort with biblical passages that speak of love for the stranger and empathy for others based on our own experience as “strangers in the land of Egypt.” But spiritual growth requires recognizing the difficult and painful realities of life so that we may work to overcome them. I need to acknowledge that my ancestors saw nothing wrong with possessing other human beings as property and consider the consequences of thinking that those who are not “one of us” may be subject to a lower standard of treatment than we hold for ourselves.

As individuals and as a society, Americans more widely are being asked to acknowledge the continuing legacy of slavery. Like these Torah readings, looking at the reality of this history is painful and makes me defensive. At the same time, the wiser voice within me knows that naming a problem does not create the problem – on the contrary, talking about our part in racist policies and perspectives is what allows us to overcome them.

It is with this hope that the Tikkun Olam Team has invited Shane Wiegand, local educator and activist, to speak to us this Sunday on “Redlining and Resistance in Rochester.” In addition to learning of the historic policies that continue to impact poverty, housing, and education in the Rochester area, we will discuss what we can do to address and redress these harms.

Our ancestors’ willingness to own people as their property was based on viewing them as “other” people, not “one of us,” in direct contradiction to our Jewish belief that all human beings are created in the image of God. To truly believe in the unity of God is to perceive the interrelatedness of all creation and to understand that, in a whole and healed world, there can be no “other.” We must undertake the work of addressing racism for the health of our own souls. Our prayer book teaches, “When will redemption come? When we grant everyone what we claim for ourselves.” Please join me this Sunday as we work together for that day.

Be well/ Zei gezunt / Sano,

Rabbi Drorah Setel