Wednesday, April 16, 2008

We were slaves. . .

One of the beautiful things about being American is different groups being able to enjoy one another's culture and learn from their positive aspects. African-Americans deliberately drew on our Torah for encouragement in their struggle against slavery and, later, against Jim Crow. And Jewish musicians, Subliminal in particular comes to mind, draw upon hip-hop to express their love of Israel and defiance of the evil forces seeking its destruction.

There is a rich trove of narratives handed down by successive generations of African-American slaves and later committed to writing (sounds like our gemara?). Many of these tales are included in the anthology "To Be A Slave" that is used in New York's public schools. When my sister was waiting several years for her get (!), she and her children would come to me for the sedarim and I could not rush through the Haggada as I am often tempted to do when we do not have "guests." I selected several slave narratives from that book and had each of the children read one. One of those narratives spoke of how each slave had a quota of cotton to pick, and would be beaten if he failed to meet it. When I first read that it hit me like - like a ton of bricks. Doing my best to keep a poker face, I asked the child whom I asked to read the narrative if it reminded him of anything. I got a blank look and a negative answer. Going around the table, I got the same look and the same answer. I had to explain to the kids (all three of my nephews and my niece were going to haredi yeshivot, but my children's yeshivot were no better) about the quota of bricks that Parshat Shemot tells us had to be made by each Jewish slave, and the whippings if the quota was not met.

Let us keep this in mind whenever racist thoughs enter our heads and whenever we are tempted to let racist words escape our lips. It is at the core of our belief system (see Parshat Lekh-lekha) that we did not end up in Egypt by happenstance. We were sent there for a purpose; it was all planned out centuries in advance, if not before the creation of the world. Time and again we are told to observe various mitzvot bein adam la-havero "because you were slaves [or strangers] in Egypt." It never ceases to amaze me that Jews in the ante-bellum South fought for the Confederacy - how did they keep a straight face when they sat their children down and repeated the age-old formula beginning with the four Hebrew words for "We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt?" It was no coincidence that Jewish Americans were in the forefront of the struggle against Jim Crow half a century ago (as I tell my students, I'm old enough to remember Martin Luther King but a mite too young to have been a freedom rider). And when people say that Jewish Americans live like WASPs and vote like Puerto Ricans I take it as a compliment: it confirms that we are being true to our calling.

Hag Kasher V'sameah.

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