צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף
First, a quick summary of this momentous parashah. It opens with the 8th and 9th plagues, locusts and darkness. Pharaoh continues to refuse to let the Israelites go and worship God in the wilderness. God then tells Moses, and Moses tells Pharaoh, that there will be one more plague, the killing of the firstborn. There is then a pause in the drama while God gives instructions for the Passover lamb sacrifice that the Israelites are to offer that evening, along with unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and the commandment for the seven-day holiday of Passover. The Israelites are then instructed to mark their doorposts with blood to indicate their homes should be spared from the last plague. In the middle of the night, God kills all Egyptian firstborns, human and cattle. The Israelites request and receive objects of silver and gold from the Egyptians, as God had told them to. And they leave Egypt, baking unleavened cakes on their way out. Moses repeats the rituals of the Passover holiday for the people to follow when God leads them into the land God promised to their ancestors, along with the redemption of firstborn children and animals.
Looking at this week’s parashah through an anti-racism lens, it is not hard to find teachings that can inform and inspire our present-day quest for racial justice.
First, the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt has been a powerful inspiration for liberation movements over the generations, and has been especially potent for the African American struggle for liberation, first from slavery, and subsequently from continuing oppression. We can find in today’s parashah a precedent for the layers of oppression that Black Americans have faced in their quest for liberation. Moses starts by asking for the Israelites to be able to go and worship God in the wilderness. At first Pharaoh says no, then is persuaded by the plagues to say: OK, worship your God, but here in Egpyt, not in the wilderness. Then he says OK, go to the wilderness but only men, no children. Then he says OK all the people, but no cattle, before he is finally convinced to allow all the people and their animals to leave. Even after the Exodus, Pharaoh changes his mind and tries to recapture the Israelites.
These reluctant insufficient steps toward liberation are echoed in the Black American liberation experience. The United States’ Pharaoh, the white power structure, eventually and reluctantly ended chattel slavery, but soon replaced it with the practices of Jim Crow: OK, you can be technically “free”, but you can’t vote, can’t receive an education, can’t own property, etc. Eventually the U.S. Pharaoh said OK, we’ll eliminate explicitly racist laws, but maintain racial segregation and discrimination through practices like redlining and restrictive covenants, and restricting economic opportunity. In the next phase, commonly termed the “New Jim Crow”, Blacks were and continue to be targeted with differential law enforcement, resulting in mass incarceration and ongoing disparities in access to education, economic opportunity, and power.
Secondly, also in today’s parashah is the precedent for reparations for slavery. It is first commanded in Exodus 11:2-3:
Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold.
The LORD disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people. Moreover, Moses himself was much esteemed in the land of Egypt, among Pharaoh’s courtiers and among the people.
And then it is carried out in Exodus 12:35-36:
The Israelites had done Moses’ bidding and borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing.
And the LORD had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians.
The word “borrow” can alternatively be translated as “ask for”.
The Book of Jubilees (an ancient Hebrew text that did not make it into the Bible) says: “This asking was in order to despoil the Egyptians in return for the bondage in which they had forced them to serve.”
The medieval commentator Sforno says: In Moses' honor the Egyptians gave generously to the Israelites.
It is fascinating how the Plaut Torah commentary, published by the Reform movement in 1981, tersely comments on these verses: “Note also the demands for restitution made by the black revolutionary movement in the United States.”
Thirdly, there are different models of bringing about justice. How does God bring Pharaoh around to the right point of view? From the opening verses of today’s parashah:
You may recount in the hearing of your child and of your child’s child how I made a mockery of the Egyptians . . . How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me?
This is a model of total domination and humiliation, which was deemed necessary in the face of Pharaoh’s arrogant and repeated hard-hearted refusal to let the Israelites go. Is there another model for opening people to a just perspective?
There is a classical midrash in which Pharaoh is spared at the Red Sea, and ends up leading his people in repenting. In the Midrash, Pharoah became king of Nineveh, where, hundreds of years later, Jonah came and brought word from God that in three days Nineveh would be destroyed because of its wickedness. Pharaoh remembered when Moses brought God's word that Egypt was doomed. So this time, he listened and led the people of Nineveh in repentance. The wording in the book of Jonah, “The people of Ninveveh believed in God”, mimics that in Exodus right before the Song of the Sea: “They believed in God”. The people of Nineveh were brought to belief in God by none other than Pharaoh, when he told them of the wonders that occurred in Egypt and the Red Sea. The fact that someone like Pharaoh, who time and again refused to recognize the power of God, could repent and teach a whole city about the truth of God, is a remarkable lesson in the strength of repentance.
I want to invite us to explore how we approach our anti-racism efforts. Do we emulate God’s approach in Egypt of blaming and humbling those who perpetuate racism? Or do we emulate God’s and the king of Nineveh’s approach of inviting people into repentance? While there may be times in the struggle for racial justice that require strong public rebuke, for the work we are doing inside our own GJC community, I invite us to proceed with compassion, love, and respect.
All of us grew up in a society steeped in racism, whether or not we were aware of it. None of us asked for this, but none of us could avoid messages of white supremacy and Black inferiority from seeping into our conscious and unconscious minds. It was the air that we breathed, and we are not to blame for having those attitudes and thoughts lurking somewhere inside us. As I see it, our challenge is to uncover any unconscious racial bias we harbor, strive not to let it influence our thoughts and actions, and work to dismantle the oppressive systems that centuries of racism have built up.
How can we approach our anti-racism journey as a cooperative venture? As a way to help each other liberate ourselves from the dehumanizing effects of racism? All of us have blind spots, and we need each other to help see them. I believe that is best done with compassion rather than blame, shame, or guilt. With a loving approach, we can support each other to overcome our defensive reactions, and maybe even celebrate anytime an artifact of our racist conditioning comes to light.
The big sign on the GJC lawn near Emlen Street says “Black Lives Matter” on one side. The other side sometime reads “Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice – pursue it.”. Why does this verse from Deuteronomy repeat the word justice? To teach us to pursue justice in a just way. I believe the just way to fulfill our goal to be an antiracist community is to approach each other with compassion.