They wanted to tear down the tulip tree, our neighbors, last year. It throws a/ shadow over their vegetable patch, the only tree in our backyard. We said no./ Now they’ve hired someone to chainsaw an arm—the crux on our side of/ the fence—and my wife, in tousled hair and morning sweat, marches to stop the/ carnage, mid-limb. It reminds her of her childhood home, a shady place to hide./ She recites her litany of no, returns. Minutes later, the neighbors emerge. The/ worker points to our unblinded window. I want to say, it’s not me, slide out of/ view behind a wall of cupboards, ominous breakfast table, steam of tea, our two/ young daughters now alone. I want no trouble. Must I/ fight for my wife’s desire/ for yellow blooms when my neighbors’ tomatoes will stunt and blight in shade?/ Always the same story: two people, one tree, not enough land or light or love./ Like the baby brought to Solomon, someone must give. Dear neighbor, it’s not/ me. Bloom-shadowed, light-deprived, they/ lower the chainsaw again.
The poem, One Tree by Philip Metres, is about conflict at the local level. The struggle is neighbor against neighbor and the battlefield is the back yard. The fence that separates properties cannot keep out the tree’s shade cast from one lot into the next. The conflict, however, is not a two-sided affair. The narrator-husband is a bystander who is sympathetic to both claims. The worker is a combatant by proxy, a participant without an expressed conviction. The poem reminds us that while the sides to any confrontation might be seen from the outside as monolithic, divisions within the opponents might, and invariably do, exist. And unwitting players are bound to get caught in the conflict as well.
The rivalry between Jacob and Esau as described in this week’s parsha, Toledot (Genesis 25:19 – 28:9), begins in Rebecca’s pregnant belly. Their conflict is founded in their nature and fed by their nurture. Their methods and their goals couldn’t be more divergent. And their struggle is intensified by the fact that they are family. Neighbors may disengage or move. Siblings remain enmeshed by a shared history, a common bond of blood, and a character dynamic that replays (perhaps subconsciously if not overtly) at every encounter. While the men may grow like branches in opposite directions, they remain attached to the same tree.
In a 2010 interview with Krista Tippett on the podcast On Being, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the British Commonwealth who passed away on November 7, discussed the dynamics of political and religious conflict. In addressing conflict between faiths, he offered the following: “We all come from a single source. Everything that lives has its genetic code written in the same alphabet. Unity creates diversity. So don’t think of one God, one truth, one way. Think of one God creating this extraordinary number of ways, the 6,800 languages that are actually spoken. Don’t think there’s only one language within which we can speak to God.”
How much more does this teaching apply to us as a human family? Our diversity–of ideologies, of political philosophies, of beliefs, of values, of behavioral patterns–can be traced back to the same singular source. When we ignore how interconnected we are, we “throw shade” across our fences, depriving one another of light and the accompanying growth, and we fail to see ourselves in the other. In recognizing our shared code, we can find common ground between siblings, neighbors and ideologies. In understanding how nature and nurture have shaped the many permutations of that code, we can begin to understand and appreciate the diversity and uniqueness of every human family member.
In the ongoing struggle for recognition, for love, for resources, for power, we might make the same mistake as the poem’s narrator. “It’s not me,” they wish their neighbor would know. But, of course, it is me. And it is you. The tree is ours; it is us, our history, our heritage and our responsibility. But it is not ours alone. It belongs as well to our siblings, cousins and neighbors. It belongs to our friends across the aisle and across the oceans. The tree is ours.
In memory of Ruth Ignatoff z”l, mother of Jonathan Drill and his four unique and loving siblings,
Rabbi Craig Scheff
On October 14th at 8:45 am, my watch battery died. The date is significant because it is the morning when we finally left two weeks of quarantine in Tel Aviv and held our new grandson in our arms for the first time.
As I write these words, I am sitting on my return flight home. Recollecting two magical weeks with Sagi, Sarah and newborn Carmel Louis, I can see now the significance of lacking a functioning watch.
What time was it? It was the present moment in every moment.
I have tried to be intentional for many years, studying and practicing mindfulness, even having the chutzpah to teach it. But for the first time, I experienced complete presence without working at it.
Carmel Louis was my teacher.
What time was it? Without my watch and with my phone tucked away, it was just this moment.
It was time for Carmel to cuddle in my arms, listening to me sing “White Cliffs of Dover.”
It was time for Sagi and Sarah to give Carmel a bath. (He screamed throughout!)
It was time to bless Carmel for Shabbat.
It was time to push Carmel’s stroller to the tayelet (the walkway beside the Mediterranean) to see the sunset.
It was time to take three chicken pot pies out of the oven, one for dinner, one for Josh, and one for the freezer.
It was time to sit on the balcony beside Sagi’s herb garden as Sarah nursed Carmel.
It was time to stare endlessly at Carmel Louis Fainshtain Drill, mesmerized by every expression that passed across his tiny face.
Before I post these words, I will have returned home, turned off my away message, and begun responding to my emails. I am grateful for the lessons taught by Carmel and I will maintain them as I reenter the hectic pace of rabbinic work during a pandemic.
I hope that the lessons I learned will not only stay with me, but be helpful to you as well.
- Do one thing at a time. Multi-tasking means that you’re going to miss something.
- Practice doing nothing at all except for gazing at something perfect and beautiful in God’s world. If you don’t have Carmel handy, practice with the view from your window, your pet, or a loved one on Zoom.
- Be completely aware of your blessings in every moment. If you feel down or fatigued or worried (as we are apt to feel in these days), reframe the moment. Despite your experience at the time, look for and count your blessings. (Sarah described feeling so tired when she heard Carmel cry just one-half hour after a middle of the night feeding. Then she looked into his little face and was flooded with love.)
- Put your phone down and take off your watch. I know that I cannot do this in my normal days as I did for two weeks on Mapu Street in Tel Aviv. But I can do it for an hour every day. And I can do it on Shabbat.
Let me know how you do! Drop me a note anytime! What time? The present moment in every moment will be just the right time!
With blessings, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
I love origin stories.
I don’t care what the critics say. Give me Henry Cavill, Tom Welling or Christopher Reeve as Superman. Give me Christian Bale, Val Kilmer or David Mazouz as Batman. Give me Tom Holland, Andrew Garfield or Toby Maguire as Spiderman. Give me Richard Donner or Zack Snyder. Give me Tim Nolan or Christopher Nolan. Give me Sam Raimi or Jon Watts. Give me any of these actors and directors, so long as they are giving me an origin story, and I’m hooked.
And I don’t even mind if the origin stories they deliver are competing in details or factually different. So long as the origin story offers me an insight into what drives my hero‘s motor, I’m hooked. And I can go back for more, again and again.
I find myself far more sympathetic to a character when I know that character’s origin story. I want to understand their roots of insecurities, their foundations of confidence, their source of aspirations. The beauty of the origin stories for me is that the creative interpreters—the writers, actors and directors—are ultimately responsible for dictating how we understand what motivates our favorite characters to act. No choice can made, no action can be taken in the foreground without the origin story hanging in the background.
Adam and Eve, in the Book of Genesis, get two (!) origin stories juxtaposed against each other. I imagine the writer and director getting together to offer two different vantage points from which we can watch the story unfold.
Moses, in the Book of Exodus, is given a detailed origin story, one depicting the harrowing circumstances surrounding his birth, the fateful moment he asserts independence from his assigned station of royalty, and the transformative event that calls him to God’s service.
When it comes Noah and Abraham, —the father of the post-flood human race and the father of the Jewish people, respectively—however, the Torah gives us no origin story. Instead, we’ve relied on the artistic and creative storytelling abilities of rabbis through the centuries to propose the origin stories that would provide greater insight into, understanding of, and appreciation for these towering characters. These origin stories are collected in the body of literature we call The Midrash.
My issue with The Midrash is that, while we have attributed some of these proposed origin stories to great and authoritative voices from our past, we all too often rely on them as if they were written by God God-self or discovered in the text of the Torah. In so doing, we relinquish the opportunity to connect the origin stories of these characters with our own experiences. While at some point in my life I may have smashed my father’s idols on a metaphoric level, I would much rather relate to Abraham‘s story of hearing God‘s voice in his life in the context of my own experience.
It is said of the Torah that she has 70 faces. I prefer that one of those faces be a reflection of my own. In studying the stories of Noah and Abraham, I can wrestle with what it means to be sufficiently righteous in this world to merit saving. I can ponder what sacrifices I would be willing to make in order to perpetuate goodness in this world. I can picture children, parents and spouses struggling to discern God’s willing voice in this world.
In the absence of origin stories for Noah and Abraham, the Torah makes room for my own. This origin story is mine.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
One day before the beginning of Sukkot, Z’man Simchateinu, the Time of our Joy, I became a Bubbe for the first time. It is an honorific title for which I have waited fairly patiently and for which I am humbly grateful. I write “fairly patiently” because while I did not annoy my children with expectation, I certainly practiced Bubbehood with all of the children at OJC and let it be known that I was ready! And I write “humbly grateful” because while I am filled with an uncanny, indescribable joy, I am well aware of so many people who will never become grandparents for one reason of life or another. May we always have humility when acknowledging a blessing.
And so, I acknowledge my blessing. Carmel Louis Fainshtain entered the world and Z’man Simchateinu took on vast new dictionaries of meaning. This is truly a time of great joy and yet it is not complete. Due to the vagaries of COVID-19, Jonathan and I arrived in Israel in time for the birth, but we will be in quarantine for a total of 14 days. I can offer Sarah comfort and whatever wisdom I recall, but only over FaceTime. Jonathan will be sandek at the bris of his first grandchild, but via Zoom.
Is it still Z’man Simchateinu if it is not complete?
And now it actually is Sukkot, Z’man Simchateinu. Being in Israel for the holiday is absolutely a time of great joy, but again, it is not complete. Here in our quarantine apartment, there is no sukkah. Josh purchased lulav and etrog from the shuk for me, but I daven alone on the balcony.
Is it a time of great joy or will I allow Covid-19 and this quarantine to diminish it? Talmud has something valuable to offer to my question about the incompleteness of joy. In Sukkah 11b, we find an argument between Rabbi Eleazer and Rabbi Akiva:
These booths were ענני כבוד clouds of glory, this is the statement of Rabbi Eliezer. Rabbi Akiva says: They established for themselves סוכות ממש actual sukkot.
Every year for the past 35 years before this one, I have spent time in an actual sukkah, making kiddush with my community, welcoming guests, eating autumn meals; and throughout the week, embracing the idea of my vulnerability and the world’s fragility. The three temporary walls and star-pricked skhach roof teach me to reject the idea that any of us has control. With or without a sukkah, we now know in our very souls that none of us has control. One message of Sukkot is that the only true safety and shelter is found in God‘s protection.
If the actual sukkah is the antithesis of real shelter, the Clouds of Glory are the ultimate shelter. Our ancestors who wandered through the wilderness should have been vulnerable in every way, but instead, they were completely safe, sheltered by God. God’s cloud shielded the Israelites from the desert’s harshness and protected them from enemies.
The time of our great joy is about both vulnerability and protection. Humanity has never been in as much turmoil and fear during my lifetime as we are now. And yet in the midst of the upheaval, here I am welcoming a brand new precious life. Incomplete joy, Judaism teaches, is the only kind of real simcha that we ever have. We gather at holidays and remember those we’ve lost. We celebrate a wedding and smash a glass to remember tragedy even at the beginning of a new marriage. I celebrate Sukkot without an actual sukkah. I have a new grandson whom I cannot yet hold in my arms. Yet it’s all joy if it’s connected to acknowledging the blessing of God’s loving abundance.
This year, I may not have a sukkah mamash (an actual sukkah) but I most certainly have the experience of being protected by Ananei Kavod (God’s Clouds of Glory).
Moadim l’simcha, may these days of Sukkot be filled with joy for you!
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
As we gathered in person and via Zoom for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, two things gave me pause and helped me think about ba-yamim ha-elu baz’man hazeh. (to paraphrase and tweak a blessing:) in these days in this time.
First, the Ner Tamid (Eternal Light) in our sanctuary was glowing once again. Perhaps you never noticed, but somewhat shockingly, the bulb in our Eternal Light went out midsummer. We made do with Joe’s flashlight because the replacement was on back order for weeks and weeks. (Sorry for this disclosure to those of you who assumed that the Eternal Light in our Sanctuary burns according to the will of God. A part of me has always thought that too. Nonetheless, our beautiful Eternal Light shines because of electricity and a light bulb.) But at last, on the first day of the New Year, for the first time in months, God was most definitely back in our Sanctuary. (Let me be clear, I do not think that God was missing from us; God was probably visiting us via Zoom while we were out of the Sanctuary for months.)
The second thing happened when Rabbi Hersh and a couple of his kids came in to their usual seats just before services began. As he put on his tallit, he spotted something in the book holder. As he pulled up a children’s book, My Purim Parade, he and I shared an over-the-face-mask look of disbelief and acceptance. The last time our community had gathered in the Sanctuary, albeit in limited number, have been for the Megillah reading at Purim.
These two small details have informed my thinking for the last nine days, from Rosh Hashanah to the beginning of Yom Kippur this evening. Time moves forward in a straight line. Lightbulbs go out, Krista orders a replacement, weeks go by, and the lightbulb is replaced. Purim takes place in March, Passover and Shavuot follow, and now we find ourselves in Aseret Y’mei Hateshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). Through these months of pandemic upheaval, time has marched steadily forward.
Jewish time, however, moves in a completely different way, in a circular fashion. While the calendar marches forward, it also goes in a great circle. Our weeks move toward Shabbat and then circle back again to the next Shabbat. In the same spirit of cycles, each month begins and ends with a new moon. Before we know it, Purim will come again and then Passover. We clean up the crumbs from the hamantaschen and take out the Passover dishes every year, year after year.
Our teshuva (repentance) is also circular in its fashion. Every year we rise as the beginning strains of Kol Nidre are chanted. Something moves within us. We have marched forward for an entire year, but somehow, here we are, considering the same mistakes that we make every year.
I will experience linear and circular time simultaneously tonight. I will think: How can I be standing here again, still wondering when I will remember to be patient and stop gossiping and pause before speaking and not judge people? What good does it do if I stand here every year still mired in my same mistakes?
The answer comes if we are able to integrate the Gregorian calendar self together with the Jewish calendar self. My friend Anne envisions the marriage of linear time to circular time as an ever-ascending spiral staircase. We go around but ever higher, always forward. Thinking back over these Covid months, she pointed out to me that when you are ascending a circular staircase, the turning perspectives and the angles of your climb mean that you cannot always see the steps you have taken. All of our positive steps forward might be hidden from view as we look ahead on the climb, hoping to see where we are going. We forget to look back down at the many steps we have taken. We forget that success and failure, triumph and mistakes are all part of this circular, linear path of living.
Since the pandemic began, I have studied Hebrew weekly with a terrific teacher, my son Josh. We have a sichah (conversation) during which he texts me new vocabulary words which we use in conversation the following week. One week when we were scheduling a time for our shiur (lesson), I made a mistake in the conjunction of the verb. Josh corrected me and then I wrote: Kein, todah, ani ta-iti. (Yes, thanks, I made a mistake). Josh wrote back: “To make a mistake is a fabulous thing. It makes learning possible.” And there you have it! Yom Kippur in a WhatsApp message!
I am imperfect, created to be imperfect by a perfect God. Surely God knew what God was doing when creating imperfect me. Yes, I show up year after year, still hoping to refine and renew, still planning to adjust and refocus, still beating my chest about the same faults and habits. But if I stand on the circle of time, at the same geometric point on that circle, back again at Yom Kippur, I can see that I am new, I am different, I have moved forward. I have grown from a year of walking straight along the linear time of 5780. I have also grown in my soul as I circle back once again to the 10th of Tishrei, a split-second jump with full faith from 5780 to 5781.
On the eve of a new year, I offer this prayer on behalf of my colleagues and religious leaders of every faith, who are striving to connect people in community in new and creative ways while maintain an authentic sense of tradition. And I offer this prayer in thanksgiving for a community who has told its faith leaders in a myriad of ways that they trust us, despite our flaws. The Hineni prayer (“Here I am”) is the prayer leader’s plea that God look past the shortcomings of the one appointed to pray on the community’s behalf. What follows is my interpretation of the original text.
Perhaps they don’t see that I am
to confront current circumstance,
Shaken and uncertain
In the face of forces that threaten to overwhelm me.
Yet I must present myself to be heard
on behalf of a community that has entrusted me to represent.
I don’t claim to be worthy or sufficiently informed.
So I seek balance in the Source
of my ancestors’ resilience
In the breath between
Adonai and Adonai,
Compassion and Grace,
Tradition and Self-Sufficiency,
Reverence and Awe.
Carve me a path to success
As I seek the welfare
Of all those who have sent me.
Hold blameless those who trust me despite my shortcomings now exposed.
Guide me to speak with wisdom,
sensitive in tone,
considerate of all needs.
And may the love in my heart make up for the flaws in my actions.
May acknowledging the mistakes of our past transform our futures into joy and celebration,
life and wholeness,
with truth and peace as our guides.
Don’t let me falter on this path.
May it be Your will—
God of Israel and Sonia
God of Stan and Hannah
El, Unfathomable, Powerful,
Source of my resilience
Yet to be known—
That my words will resonate
Until they are understood
For their sincerity
And their intentions
And their justice
And their humanity
And for the way they honor Your Name,
Unfathomable and Beyond Understanding.
Attend to my prayer for compassion.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
This tumultuous year is far from over, though so many of us sadly are wishing it away. Hurricane Isaias was just the latest in what feels like a growing list of events that have drawn down our reservoir of resilience. As we find ourselves in the weeks leading to the Jewish community’s season of reflection and joy, it is an appropriate time to look back at 2020 with clearer vision and sharper focus. Seeing these past months through a Jewish perspective on time, specifically in the framework of transitioning from the years 5780 to 5781, might allow us a way to reframe our view of the first 8 months of the calendar year vis a vis the 4 months remaining.
The Jewish process of teshuva—reflection, atonement, return— reminds us that we have a choice. We can allow the challenging moments of our lives to deplete us, to shorten our tempers, to consume our patience, to sap our energy. Or we can recognize these natural consequences of stress and, instead, build on the unexpected yet fortifying outgrowths of our circumstances.
As we prepare for a “hybrid“ approach to our holiday celebrations—combining communal in-person and at-home opportunities to experience the essential and intended messages that present the opportunity for personal transformation—the liturgy of the holidays can offer a useful vehicle for navigating these days with direction and meaning. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the pages of the mahzor present a progression of themes that we expand upon in the hours of structured prayer. Whether we are in the sanctuary or in the privacy of our homes, we can rely upon these themes as a personal “seder” (order) that will help us in creating our own unique ritual for this holiday season and provide a much-needed perspective for this unusual time in our world.
For Rosh Hashanah, we may reflect on:
Sovereignty (Malkhuyot) – In the last months, what has ruled my priorities? How has the hierarchy of my priorities changed? In the months to come, will I live my days passively, or will I rule my choices?
Remembrance (Zichronot) – In the last months, what have been my losses? How have I grieved? In the months to come, how will I honor and celebrate the people and events that transform my life?
Wake-up calls (Shofarot) – In the last months, what have I discovered as our “silver linings”? Where have I found meaning and hope? In the months to come, what are the things that will refill my reservoir of resilience?
For Yom Kippur, we may reflect on:
Confession (Teshuva) – In the last months, where have I willingly fallen short of the mark as a friend or family member? How have I unintentionally contributed to another’s suffering? In the months to come, what can I do to relieve my burden and those of others?
Connection (Tefilla) – In the last months, what connections have made me feel relevant? What connections have been my support? In the months to come, what connections will I pursue that I have yet to explore?
Community (Tzedaka) – In the last months, from whose kindnesses have I benefited? Have I given of my blessings to assist others? In the months to come, what will I do to sustain the communities that have been there for me when I have needed them?
Some of us may be wondering and worrying how we will make meaning of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur without sitting in synagogue this year. The Jewish New Year’s arrival, this year in particular, may help us look back with 2020 hindsight, and may help us envision the final third of 2020 with a greater sense of gratitude, purpose and optimism.
Join your community in the weeks ahead as we prepare for the arrival of 5781 by cultivating a new outlook on the last months of 2020.
Rabbi Craig Scheff
Declarations of God’s faithfulness abound in the Book of Psalms. Every Thursday since the pandemic began, I have been teaching about psalms at the conclusion of the Zoom evening minyan. God‘s faithfulness is mentioned most often in the form: אמונתך(emunatecha), Your faithfulness, a very intimate declaration made directly to God: “Adonai, Your faithfulness reaches to heaven.” (Psalm 36:6) “In my heart I declared God‘s faithfulness and deliverance.” (Psalm 40:11) “Who is mighty like you, Adonai? Your faithfulness surrounds you.” (Psalm 89:9)
God’s faithfulness toward me is a strange idea to fathom. I understand people being faithful to each other and I understand people being faithful to God. But what does it mean that God is faithful to us?
This past week, I asked myself this question many times. I wondered how God is faithful when I spoke with a cousin who has had more than her share of sorrow. I asked again when talking with a congregant living through a terrible week of anniversaries. I asked when doing spiritual check-ins with people who struggle with Covid-19 loneliness and speak about longing for spouses who have been gone for many years. “Is God faithful” feels like an essential question when I look into the faces of congregants saying Kaddish within the grid of our nightly zoom minyanim.
These four months of the pandemic have evoked anxiety, loneliness and loss. Holding space for congregants who have experienced the death of a loved one during these months of quarantine has turned the question of God’s faithfulness into a mantra.
I repeated it and repeated it: “Is God faithful?” until I answered the question with a more salient question.
Yes, of course God is faithful. But am I?
God is always present to me. Even when I turn away from God or neglect my promises or just don’t show up like I say I will, God welcomes me back without chastisement. If I show the smallest hint of reaching toward God, there God is, no questions asked, faithful to me as always.
Yes, of course God is faithful. But am I?
I thought about the way I have tried to show up for people grieving the death of a loved one during the time of Covid-19. Whether the death happened in the past few months or many years ago, I try to be a faithful person in the face of their sorrow. Far from perfect, I often make mistakes, but I try to be a faithful person. And my faithfulness is in the image of God‘s faithfulness.
God does not become offended or give up on me when I don’t show up with full attention. God is faithful. I am faithful when I stand beside people without judging or needing anything in return. I don’t take unanswered phone calls or emails personally. I focus on just being present.
God might be lonely and feel misunderstood but God never puts that onto us. God is faithful. We can be faithful just like God when we agree to enter the pain of another for the long road ahead. We don’t make it our pain yet we are willing to be changed by it.
God listens to my prayers and does not always try to fix my problems. God is faithful. A faithful friend can sit with someone else’s pain and be silent. They are at ease with their inability to save that person. They simply hold the pain. That’s what God does. That’s what faithful friends do.
I can compare God’s faithfulness to human faithfulness, but I could never be the spokesperson for what faithfulness means to those who grieve. And so, for the purposes of this post, I did an extremely unscientific survey. I asked people who have suffered the death of a loved one what they experience from a friend or family member who is faithful.
David Klein, whose beloved son Danny died by suicide five years ago, told me that a faithful friend knows that it is always an appropriate time to acknowledge the loss. Faithful friends do not worry that by mentioning Danny‘s name, they will remind David of his loss. It’s not like David ever forgets. Faithful friends say the name.
Judy Klein adds that faithful friends expect and accept ups and downs, knowing that it is not about them. Faithful friends walk the sidelines of the path, listening to the silence and not talking.
Another wise congregant who is the parent of a child who died says that faithful friends are willing to accomplish the impossible. They are aware of and careful with their words but also don’t treat her like fragile glass that will break. Faithful friends ask questions and apologize if they say unintentionally hurtful things.
One man who is a widower told me that his faithful children know when to shed tears alongside him and when to be strong for him.
A daughter who lost her mother wrote that faithful friends let her know that she is not a burden.
Another congregant said to me, “Don’t worry that something you say might break me. I will not break, I am already broken.” She is one of the most powerfully faithful people I know. She embodies the import of Leonard Cohen‘s “Anthem”:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
The most faithful of us will remember that there is no perfect thing we can offer except our presence and our willingness to always look for the light. It seems to me that is how God is faithful. So that’s how we can do it – in God’s image.
With faithfulness, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Over 3000 years ago, on the 15th of the Hebrew month Nisan, the Egyptian Pharaoh releases the Israelites from centuries of bondage as all of Egypt cries out in the wake of God’s deadly plague. They march out in song and jubilation before their masters. The brutalities and indignities of slave life finally come to an end. The Israelites are free to follow their God into the wilderness.
Over 150 years ago, on the 1st day of January, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared, after two centuries of African American enslavement, “that all persons held as slaves” within the states that had seceded from the United States “are, and henceforward shall be, free.” The brutalities and indignities of slave life, the whippings and sexual assaults, the selling and forcible relocation of family members, the denial of education, wages, legal marriage, homeownership, had finally come to an end. African Americans celebrated their newfound freedom both privately and in public jubilees.
When Pharaoh changes his mind and his armies give chase to the Israelites, God divides a sea for safe passage, and closes it to drown their pursuers. God provides water and bread from heaven along the way. Within a few months, they arrive at the mountain of God.
Two and a half years later, on June 19th, 1865, the slaves of Galveston, Texas received their emancipation from their masters. Some emancipated slaves quickly fled from their owners, while others who couldn’t imagine any feasible alternative remained to become wage laborers for their former owners. As the Civil War came to a close, Southern states began to pass a series of discriminatory state laws collectively known as ”black codes.” Slavery had been a pillar of economic stability in the region before the war; now, black codes ensured the same stability by recreating the antebellum economic structure under the façade of a free-labor system.
At Mount Sinai the Israelites receive their constitution from God, a roadmap for building community, for establishing law and order, for promoting equality, equity and justice, and for creating a physical, social and spiritual space worthy of God’s presence.
The newly freed slaves were treated by some of their former masters with fair wages. Many former slave owners treated the freedmen with contempt, disdain and fear. One freedman, Houston Hartsfield Holloway, wrote, “For we colored people did not know how to be free and the white people did not know how to have a free colored person about them.”
When the time comes to realize God’s promise, ten of the twelve scouts who had gone into the Promised Land report to their community that the plan is not feasible. The residents, from their perspective, are giants. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”
The Reconstruction implemented by Congress, which lasted from 1866 to 1877, was aimed at reorganizing the Southern states after the Civil War, providing the means for readmitting them into the Union, and defining the means by which whites and blacks could live together in a nonslave society. The South, however, saw Reconstruction as a humiliating, even vengeful imposition and did not welcome it.
God and Moses are deeply disappointed, to say the least, that the community chooses to heed the report of the ten, as opposed to the more optimistic report of Joshua and Caleb, who believe that it is within their power—with God’s help—to take what has been promised. God decides to punish the Israelites for their lack of faith to forty years of wandering in the wilderness, such that the generation of slaves will die before they enter the Promised Land.
In 1877, the “Exodusters,” blacks who fled the south, established the settlement of Nicodemus on the arid plains of northwestern Kansas. However, because of several crop failures and resentment from the county’s white settlers, all but a few homesteaders abandoned their claims. A rising population of 500 in 1880 had declined over the next 40 years to less than 200.
Forty years later it is the Israelites’ children, raised in the wilderness within the parameters of the new constitution and under the eyes of a protecting God, who enter Canaan to reclaim their ancestral homeland.
In the former Confederacy and neighboring states, local governments constructed a legal system aimed at re-establishing a society based on white supremacy. African American men were largely barred from voting. Legislation known as Jim Crow laws separated people of color from whites in schools, housing, jobs, and public gathering places. The laws proved very effective. In Mississippi, fewer than 9,000 of the 147,000 voting-age African Americans were registered after 1890. In Louisiana, where more than 130,000 black voters had been registered in 1896, the number had plummeted to 1,342 by 1904. The children born to former slaves may not have known the whip as their parents did, but they suffered continuing marginalization and dehumanization at the hands of those who did not consider the 14th amendment to the Constitution–that “all men are created equal”–to include black Americans.
We, in our mostly white and Ashkenazi-centric (“Ashkenormative”) Jewish communities love to assert how we have fought for the civil rights of Black Americans through the decades, and that we are uniquely equipped to understand the experiences of people of color. There is no doubt that Jewish Americans have disproportionately supported progressive causes with their presence and their resources. But neither our historic experience of enslavement in Egypt nor our experience of anti-Semitism in all its forms through the centuries have given us unique insight into the suffering of Black Americans at the hands of a society that was created by whites for whites, and only begrudgingly made space to incorporate the “others” already in their midst. Moreover, even our immigrant experience as seekers of religious tolerance in a new world, as fraught as it may have been and continues to be, fails to educate us sufficiently to the historic and institutional inequities faced by people of color in this country.
Claims that we are not racist–that we can relate, that anti-Semitism is a problem too, that all lives matter–only serve as impediments to ridding ourselves of the systemic racial injustices and the privileges that benefit us. If we are to be ANTI-racist, allies to those who are disproportionately negatively impacted by too many systems in our country, we must listen to and we must believe the voices of those who say that they face a daily exhausting battle. We must turn within our own communities to hear the voices of Jews of color and how they have been marginalized. And we must face ourselves and our loved ones and friends honestly to confront uncomfortable truths, to engage in hard discussions, about our own attitudes and biases.
“It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards or dice, dominoes or checkers.”
—Birmingham, Alabama, 1930
Our most senior community members were born into a world where humans were marginalized for the color of their skin. Many of our parents were raised in communities where such attitudes persisted. There are those of us who felt the sting of the word “shvartze” in our homes, even if we would never use it ourselves. Few of us knew that Jews of color existed. And if we did, we questioned the authenticity of their experience or chalked them up to being Sephardic, an “otherness” of a more acceptable yet still not-as-authentic Jewish ilk.
When a person of color walks into our synagogue, do we think “What’s their story? What are they doing here? Are they Jewish? Did they convert?” These questions reflect a racist bias, regardless of our intentions. Yet, as we remind those who equate Jewish with whiteness, we are a multiracial people and we are becoming more so. We must thus begin by asking ourselves the question: As a Jewish community that is almost exclusively white, where are we? Why are we? What must we do to enter the 21st century, to create an environment where Jews of color are comfortable and safe with us? Can we assert to Jews of color that, indeed, Black lives matter, so that they no longer need to feel marginalized or denigrated in their own spiritual homes?
Perhaps home is where we can and must begin to do the arduous work of becoming anti-racist allies. I welcome the difficult conversations that will hopefully follow.
Rabbi Craig Scheff