Saturday, June 20, 2020

Why Juneteenth Matters

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat Services on June 19th.  Join us every Friday evening at 7 pm on Facebook Live. 

David Ben Gurion once said:
Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on this voyage? Or what quality of bread did they eat? Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia knows on exactly what date they left—the fifteenth of the month of Nisan; everyone knows what kind of bread the Jews ate. Even today the Jews worldwide eat matza on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled. They conclude this evening with two statements: This year, slaves. Next year, free men. This year here. Next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jews.
Ben Gurion offers a remarkable insight. Our Passover celebrations are about remembering our going free from Egypt. Every symbol on our tables is meant to do one of two things: on the one hand, to recall the pain and suffering of slavery, i.e. eating the haroset and maror or on the other hand, to celebrate the joy of being free, namely drinking four cups of wine and reclining. Why do we observe this holiday? Why do we celebrate Passover, over 3000 years after the event it commemorates? So that we might not only remember our own pain but also so that we might be sensitive to the pain of others. We eat matzah so that we might be better attuned to the suffering not just of Jews but of all people. The Torah makes clear what the symbolic gestures of the Seder imply. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23). You know what it feels like. That’s the Passover message in a nutshell.

The killing of George Floyd has shaken me. It has awakened in a great many people feelings of empathy, indignation, and despair. We have come to realize we are still not doing better. To be sure I should have been shaken years ago, and even decades ago. And I have spent the past weeks not only reading, and trying to learn more, but also examining my own attitudes and views. A verse in this week’s Torah portion sounds much different than it has in other years. Here is this week’s story that led to this newfound revelation. After returning from scouting the land, ten spies deliver a negative report, and fomented discord among the newly freed Israelites. They say, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey… [But] the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” (Numbers 13). My brethren are being devoured. I watched it on CNN. It unfolded right before my eyes.

Van Jones, a commentator who I find intelligent, insightful and who struggles still to work across party lines, remarked that there has always been a tension between the dreams of our nation’s founders and the reality in which they lived and thrived. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of our Declaration of Independence, is also the man who owned slaves and fathered children with at least one of these slave women. He is the same person who wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I look inward, as I search within my soul, as I peer into the nation that has almost exclusively offered my family and me promise and opportunity, these truths no longer appear as self-evident as they once did. I recall the history lessons of my youth. Growing up in St. Louis I remember studying the Civil War. The teacher opined, “The war was really about secession. It was not about slavery.” And I dutifully regurgitated that opinion on my test so that I might be awarded an A. Yesterday it occurred to me—and I mean literally yesterday, because until these past weeks it never even entered my mind to more closely examine that teaching—that this is like saying, “World War II was really about the invasion of Poland. It was not about the Holocaust.” This makes no sense. This makes no sense, most especially to my Jewish ears.

The Nazi’s murderous and antisemitic ideology drove it to savage Europe and slaughter six million of my people. The ideology that Jews were sub-human animated this regime. Likewise, slavery, and the ideology that Black lives are worth less than White lives, that people of color are less than human, that other human beings, who we believe, and our Jewish teachings loudly declare are created in the image of God, can be bought and sold as property, animated the South. For the soldiers of the Confederacy, the ideology of slavery led them to charge into battle. And the fact that we are still arguing about this, and denying this basic fact, and teaching that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is why we find ourselves in our current situation, a situation in which the lives of our fellow Americans who are people of color, can be killed in broad daylight by the very people who are meant to protect us—and I mean protect all of us, that is protect every single American. The safety, rescue and protection that I feel when the police drive by is not what all law-abiding Americans see. Through his tears, Van Jones, exclaimed this moment in which we now find ourselves might be different. He said, “A black man was killed, and people care.” People care. S’lach li. Forgive me for not paying attention when it was Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or the countless others. Forgive me for turning away and not doing more to fight racism.

150 years later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are still far too many remnants of the racist ideology that almost destroyed our nation and threatens to rip us apart once again. Things must change. And they must change now. No more statues venerating Confederate leaders. No more Confederate flags symbolizing what was supposed to be a defeated ideology. No more military bases named for Confederate generals. Sure, study their tactics in War Colleges and offer praise for their strategies if warranted, but their names do not below in the public squares of a nation that wants to truly live up to its founding dream that all are created equal.

Second, mark today, this day of Juneteenth on your calendars. Mark it as we do Passover. Remember that on this day, on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the last remaining slaves were delivered the news that they were free. Allow that lesson, a lesson that I was never taught in all my required American history classes, to sink in. People endured more years of slavery because it took that long for the news to reach Galveston, Texas and the far reaches of the Confederacy. Juneteenth represents the very idea we celebrate on Passover and the very best dreams of this country’s founders. This is not a rewriting of history. It is instead a correcting of how we teach history. This day must come to mark an honest accounting of our nation’s struggle to square its sometimes-tortured realities with its loftiest dreams and visions of itself. Only an honest accounting, and forthright reckoning, will do.

And finally, commit to learning more about the pain and suffering of our fellow Americans. When I speak about antisemitism in general, and the Holocaust in particular, and most especially to non-Jewish groups I ask two things of my listeners: 1) that they acknowledge historical truths, namely the countless antisemitic persecutions our people have endured and regarding the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic determination to exterminate our people, and 2) that they understand our pain. #1 must come before #2. I never really expect that they will understand what it really feels like to stand in my shoes, that they might feel this history as I feel it and as a Jew feels it. That would be unrealistic, and even illogical.

And so, I have resolved. I am not going to ask one of my few Black friends (and that small number should in itself stand as an embarrassment and indictment) to explain his or her pain to me. I worry that may only do more to assuage my guilt than to rectify our problems. What then are we going to do in this moment? I can tell you what I am going to do first. And you are welcome to join me. I am going to redo my homework from those high school years. I am going to relearn my history. I am going to read more and learn more. Watch the documentary “13th” with me. It is eye opening. Join me for a discussion of this movie. Bring your middle schoolers and high schoolers to the discussion. Email me if you are interested in joining me on this journey.

The healing begins with a renewed call to learning and listening. The repair could very well start by adding one more holiday to our calendar. Think of all that began not only with our going out from Egypt but with our sustained, and stubborn, remembrance of that historical moment at our Passover Seders. Our fellow Americans may be uplifted by such a day just as we continue to be uplifted, every year on the 15th of Nisan. It is long past time that the pain of our fellow Americans becomes our pain. We know all too well the feelings of the stranger. And no one should be made to feel like a stranger ever again.

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