Which came first – the hatred or the laws? Last Shabbat morning I stood on the side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge where over 50 years ago police and angry citizens probably occupied that very spot. We discussed civil rights leaders who are depicted on a mural as the students and parents absorbed the magnitude of the situation and tried to comprehend the history and motivation.
This week in our Torah portion, Mishpatim, only two weeks since the miraculous crossing of the red sea, one week after the giving of the Ten Commandments, we were given over 50 commandments. The first is about Hebrew slaves, they can only work for six years and go free the seventh. The parsha then continues with a list of punishments for injury, death, theft, rape, and sexuality, before turning to Shabbat and holidays. The people have gone free, but what is on the mind of the lawgiver? Slavery and Justice.
As I read the parsha I wondered what the contribution of Torah was to American slavery? American Jews, like Christians, used the Bible to justify slave ownership and slave trade. How do we understand that we emerged from a religious tradition that commands us to remember our own enslavement as a foundation of justice, and from a tradition that, while limiting and legislating slavery, nevertheless assumes its existence in our community.
Which came first, the hatred or the laws? As I told a student last Shabbat Morning, I would like to think the laws. Let us look at our own communities, our lunchrooms, our after school activities, and our weekend plans. If we tend to spend time with people that look just like us, and think just like us, we do not give ourselves the opportunity to meet others, and our connections are limited. We do not know how rules or laws affect them, and we are not able to respond to their challenges, nor they to ours. If you are not in a relationship with someone, if you are not connected, then it is easier to believe stereotypes and therefore unconscious bias and prejudice to emerge.
So what can we do? Asked another student. To start, we can spend time with people in our communities who are not just like us. Make an effort to sit with someone, to spend time with someone, to be in a relationship with someone who does not look like you or think like you. This is for kids and adults. The Religious Action Center in their Racial Justice work suggested a three-pronged approach, Reflect~to learn about causes of injustice; Relate~to develop relationships with those facing systemic injustice, and then Reform~work together to make change. Our trip to Atlanta and Alabama was our step one, Reflecting. If you are interested in your own reflection, please let me know, I have lots of resources and connections.
As we left this weekend, I asked each participant, whom they were going to tell about their experience. My teachers, my friends, my parents, were some of the responses. Good, I told them, this is your history now; you can honor what happened there, and fix what happens here, only by sharing your story. Slavery exists, our Torah knows it, but our desire to respond can help eradicate it.
If you are interested in attending the Civil Rights trip to Atlanta and Alabama next year as an adult or providing scholarship for a student to attend, please contact Rabbi Rigler