This week we begin our annual reading of the Book of Exodus. In the opening chapters of the story we find the words familiar from the Passover Haggadah: “A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exodus 1:8). With that distancing it is a short journey to enslavement.
This weekend we also observe Justice Shabbat in honor of Martin Luther King Day. There is an obvious connection between our Torah portion and the holiday in the shared experience of bondage. The biblical story also offers an insight into the nature of oppression. Like Pharaoh, those who oppress others do not know them. Put another way, we do not intentionally harm those with whom we feel a relationship. It is only when we are distanced from one another that we come to view each other as an “other.”
This oppressive attitude is the exact opposite of the core Jewish belief in the unity of God and creation. Our affirmation that every human being is created in the image of the divine requires us to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). Unfortunately, this sense of connection and mutual concern does not characterize much of contemporary American society, especially the treatment of African Americans.
In his book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein details the many ways in which official government policies have segregated our country and denied Black Americans employment, housing, education and other opportunities which, in turn, deprive them of economic security and assets. These disadvantages are not merely aspects of the past but continue today. Racial disparities involve every aspect of American life from infant and maternal mortality to wages to the justice system. With these and other concerns in mind, the Union for Reform Judaism, has come out in support of reparations for slavery and systemic racism in the United Sates. (You can read the full document at https://urj.org/what-we-believe/resolutions/resolution-study-and-development-reparations-slavery-and-systemic-racism.)
Here in Rochester we live in one of the most racially segregated areas in the country. If we accept our Jewish responsibility to know one another, to resist the Pharaoh’s belief that some are “others” who do not deserve the rights we enjoy, then we must address the causes of our own racial divides. Continuing systemic racism is not merely the result of private attitudes but rooted in our public institutions, such as housing, education, transportation, and employment. There is much work to do.
This weekend is also the 48th yahrzeit of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose legacy is based not only on his innovative theology but his passionate commitment to justice. In January, 1963 he met Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at a conference on Religion and Race for which he wrote these words, particularly apt for this Shabbat:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were
Pharaoh and Moses….The outcome of the summit meeting has not come
to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is
far from having been completed.
–Rabbi Drorah Setel