When you enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you as a heritage, and you possess it and settle in it, you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, put it in a basket and go to the place where the LORD your God will choose to establish His name.
You shall go to the priest in charge at that time and say to him, “I acknowledge this day before the LORD your God that I have entered the land that the LORD swore to our fathers to assign us.” The priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down in front of the altar of the LORD your God.
You shall then recite as follows before the LORD your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation.
The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us.
We cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The LORD freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.
SO opens this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo. Moses’ instruction to the people is crystal clear: Our freedom is to be celebrated with thanksgiving and generosity; our freedom is to be acknowledged, codified and exemplified in the telling of our story of having lived the indignity, pain and suffering of slavery; our freedom is to be enacted by seeing the ancestors not as exemplars of a long-gone past but as us.
The I of a Jew’s individual life is the We of the Jewish people. Personal identity and communal identity, for better or worse, are inextricably bound, one to the other.
During this critical moment of American history, we Jews have an opportunity and a responsibility to know our story, to tell our story, and to exemplify our story’s values for the greater good of American society.
Yesterday in Kenosha, Wisconsin, presidential candidate Joe Biden said, “‘we’re finally now getting to the point’ of addressing ‘the original sin: slavery. And all the vestiges of it.’”
Politics aside, this statement is very Jewish. It echoes what Moses commands of the people here. It states, fundamentally, that American history begins with slavery (“my father was a fugitive Aramean”); and American history can only proceed into an American present that acknowledges suffering and offers sacrifice and thanksgiving in order to safeguard the sacred relationship, the covenant, of living as a free people in a free land.
Imagine generations of Americans — all Americans — sitting down once each year for a holiday meal and reciting the story of slavery, recounting the suffering of “our ancestors,” celebrating the victory of the Union over the Confederacy in the Civil War, mourning the loss of all human life, and then singing songs of freedom and redemption.
It may seem impossible to consider. But not if we consider that even the first haggadah, likely composed in Mishnaic times (approximately between 100 BCE and 200 CE), was codified nearly 1300 years after the Exodus from Egypt took place. It pains us to realize that the wounds of slavery, the anger, the resentments — all justified in my opinion — of its ongoing and yes, systemic legacy are still very fresh, very contemporary, very real. It is mind-boggling to think that we may as a nation require decades, perhaps centuries more, before real healing can occur.
The good news is, we just don’t have that much time to wait. And this kind of sacred impatience is precisely what we need.
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?”
If not now, when?
Labor Day, which we celebrate as Americans this coming Monday, like so many national holidays, has become a shadow of its former self. The first Labor Day parade, in New York City in 1882, was staged by the Central Labor Union of Machinists to honor those “who from rude nature have delved and carved all the grandeur we behold.” Over the next decade, states slowly adopted the holiday and in 1894 President Grover Cleveland signed it into law.
Of course, in 1894 in America, post-Civil War Reconstruction had been dismantled and Jim Crow Laws codified the next 70 years of suffering for American Blacks. According to the Library of Congress, 134 Black Americans were lynched in 1894; 113 Black Americans were lynched in 1895; and 78 Black Americans were lynched in 1896. As most law students will remember from early outlining assignments, 1896 was the year of Plessy v. Ferguson, the infamous U.S. Supreme Court decision declaring racial segregation and “separate but equal” the law of the land.
Sometimes one person’s holiday is another person’s nightmare. We Jews know this as well as anyone. On Easter we were persecuted for “killing Jesus.” Christmas pageants and celebrations banned Jews from appearing in public in Europe for centuries. But the holiday on the Jewish calendar most celebrated by Jews is the Passover Seder, the ultimate story of freedom from slavery. And it’s no wonder. The tale of our triumph is unique among other cultures precisely because our victory is not just a parade and celebration with delicious food; it is a public declaration to be kind to the stranger in our midst because we were once slaves in Egypt. This line of Torah is repeated more than any other line in the Jewish tradition.
God doesn’t mince words. It’s just that important to understand.
So as we safely gather this weekend with our loved ones; as we cherish the privilege of being free; let us also celebrate the privilege of being Jews, of knowing our words, of knowing our story, and let’s recommit ourselves to love our neighbors, care for those most in need, and bring healing and understanding to all in order to build a world of justice and peace.