Go Forth to Freedom

April 6, 2022Israel Harris

On the first night of Passover, Jews around the world gather for a Seder during which the story of our ancestors' liberation from Egypt is retold. Tradition dictates that as part of the seder, the youngest person present and able asks four questions, including "Why is this night different from all others?" But each of us, no matter our age, can ask challenging questions that lead to new insights about injustice and liberation that can be applied to the modern day.

As our Haggadah guides us through the rituals at the seder table, we become fully immersed in the conditions of enslavement and terror experienced by the Hebrew people thousands of years ago. Paired with our other Jewish teachings, this Exodus story can inspire us to continue working to secure a more free and just world for all people.

Chattel slavery in the American colonies began when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. Over the course of the next two centuries, European colonialists across the Americas built societies that relied on maximizing agricultural profits on the backs of the people they enslaved and their descendants. The American colonies and then the new nation itself built wealth through enslavement, and this system remained a cornerstone on which the U.S. was founded.

Nations seeking profit through enslavement was not a new phenomenon, of course. Pharoah oppressed the children of Israel, relying on their forced labor to build cities, monuments, roads, and other resources for their oppressors. Yet, as the number of Egyptian Jews grew, the greater a threat Pharoah believed they posed to his dominance. He decreed that all Israelite boys be thrown into the Nile River and killed.

The Black community also posed a perceived threat to entrenched power. To continue their dominance, white enslavers ripped Black families apart, prevented Black people from learning how to read and write, destroyed Black communal social ties, and subjected Black people to physical violence and sexual assault.

In both Egypt and the United States, the struggle toward freedom for enslaved people was an arduous journey. To goad Pharoah into freeing the Hebrews who were enslaved, God imposed the Ten Plagues. After frogs swarmed throughout Egypt, Pharoah begged Moses to remove them in return for the Israelites' liberation. However, as soon as the frogs departed, Pharoah refused to let the Israelites go. Similarly, though the ratification of the 13th amendment in 1865 brought a legal end to chattel slavery, this was largely true on paper and not always in practice. Racial violence and discrimination persisted. States across the country remained racially divided, particularly in the South where Black Codes were passed. Some state laws and practices granted white landowners' control over the labor of Black people in ways that were functionally similar to enslavement. Even with the 15th Amendment's granting of the right to vote for Black men in 1870, this right would be circumscribed or withheld for generations, as would equality overall throughout the Jim Crow era. The Black population was promised freedom once again, just as Pharoah made the promise after Moses got rid of the fourth plague of wild animals. Unfortunately, true freedom was not yet possible.

After the seventh plague of hail, Pharoah promised freedom once again. In the U.S., the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was similarly supposed to address ongoing racial oppression. But both groups continued to suffer, despite the eighth plague of locusts and the passage of the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. Each time progress was in reach, the oppressors found ways to maintain control.

Our Passover story ends after the tenth and final plague of the slaying of the first-born. The Israelites moved quickly to flee Egypt with Pharoah and his army in pursuit. And when they thought there was no way forward through the Red Sea, God helped Moses by parting the sea. The Israelites marched to freedom.

Liberation is followed by an adjustment to newfound freedom. The Israelites wandered toward the promised land. As they did, many wished:

"If only we had died by God's hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death" (Exodus 16:3).

Members of the Black community also struggled post-enslavement, trying to survive despite a dearth of money, belongings, or the experience of freedom. As time progressed, the descendants of formerly enslaved individuals slowly began to accumulate what their white counterparts seized from them upon their enslavement. Despite emancipation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement, the quest for freedom, equality, and equity is ongoing for the Black community. To some, it feels as if the if the Red Sea never parted. And to most, the pursuit of justice continues over many more than 40 years.

That is why this Passover provides a compelling moment to discuss the current state of enslavement and discrimination of Black people. We are in a new Jim Crow Era. As Jews, we cannot sit idly by as members of our community and beyond continue to be oppressed. Our history of enslavement compels us to protect the orphan, widow, and stranger, and to defend those who are often left behind. In Deuteronomy, we read that Amalek "cut down the stragglers in [the] rear". We are responsible for ensuring those at the "rear" do not suffer.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere."

In 2019, the Union for Reform Judaism adopted a resolution in support of the Commission to Study and Develop Reparations for Black Americans. Today, the House of Representatives is close to passing Reparations legislation (H.R. 40). We will continue to push Congress and the White House to finally address this country's original sin. And this Passover, consider adding these teachings to your Magid to recenter the story to incorporate modern day systemic racism and white supremacy:

  1. In the Talmud, we learn that all people are descended from a single person so that no person can say, "my ancestor is greater than yours" (Sanhedrin 37a) because "God created humanity from the four corners of the earth - yellow clay, and white sand, black loam, and red soil. Therefore, the earth can declare to no part of humanity that it does not belong here, that this soil is not their rightful home." (Pirkei De Rabbi Eliezer 11:5-6). Both Pharoah and the U.S. failed to treat every person as if they are created in the Divine image of God.
  2. Leviticus 25 tells us about the Jubilee, or the year at the end of seven cycles of shmita, the Sabbatical years, where debt should be forgiven, land returned, and prisoners freed. Even enslaved people were given the right to rest during the Sabbath. Our ancient biblical texts rectify the state of inequity that occurs in our world because "The Earth belongs to the Eternal and the fullness thereof". Therefore, God's assets and resources should be shared with equity and fairness. For the Black community, this is still not the case.
  3. We learn from the Midrash about how to consider the following question: When there is a house with a stolen beam built into its structure, what is to be done to rectify the situation? Beit Shammai says: He must destroy the entire building and return the beams to its owners. And Beit Hillel says: The injured party receives only the value of the beam but not the beam itself, due to an ordinance instituted for the sake of the penitent. (Babylonian Talmud: Gittin 55a). From this story, we understand that even though the two scholars disagreed on the way repayments must be made, restitution is necessary.
  4. If we pair this with the teaching of Maimonides who linked the payment of damages to the concept of t'shuvah ,noting that financial commitment must accompany atonement (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 1.1), then we understand that first, we must make space for humanity to ask for forgiveness before they can be forgiven. In other words, the Reparations Movement is not trying to "tear down the house," but rather motivate a conversation with the ultimate goal of equity and repair. Racial healing can only begin when systemic oppression is recognized and accounted for, when t'shuvah is carried out.