In summer 2016, I visited my grandmother’s hometown, a small shtetl called Kopyl, near Minsk. I was part of a delegation of American and British Jews who travel to Belarus each summer to memorialize the nearly one million Belarusian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators. The experience was so powerful and meaningful that I have returned to Minsk every year since, visiting sites, reciting prayers, and hearing the testimony of local residents who witnessed the killings.
Arguably the last communist totalitarian regime in Europe, Belarus in 2016 had an eerie quiet to its streets; everything was clean and orderly, and yet its people were clearly not free. The rabbis I met who were serving what remains of Jewish life there were decidedly apolitical, operating on the assumption that the well-being of their Jews was predicated on neutrality in politics. After all, the vast majority of those Jews who remained in Belarus after the war (they were Soviet Jews) suffered mightily from Stalinist and subsequent Russian communist regimes. The sting of that peculiar Soviet anti-Semitism was still keenly felt, painfully remembered, and subtly used as a warning to those who remained, even with the current regime’s occasional allowance for the free expression of religion.
You might also know that I have a moderate to large obsession with the Underground Railroad and the extraordinary measures taken by African Americans, enslaved and free, along with white allies, to gain freedom for those held, tortured and murdered against their will. In fact I was struck when in Belarus at how very little of Jewish life would be remembered had Jews not traveled there each year, created memorials, and planted the seeds of knowledge and redemption in a land now absent of Jews. Memories are not our own but are our gifts to a future that will continue to aim for justice. In Belarus, even absent of Jews, our presence is felt. So too, I reasoned, back here in New York. Slavery and the need for the Abolitionist movement may have ended; but through memory the goals of a complete freedom and justice remain.
Walking around New York City, the center of the Abolitionist movement in the United States, one might be struck by the same notion. All the great names we know, from Harriet Tubman to Frederick Douglass, from Sojourner Truth to David Ruggles and countless others, labored here, risked their lives, and planted the seeds of knowledge and redemption so that African Americans could be free and so that the American ideal of “liberty and justice for all” could finally ring true.
New York City lags behind other states’ more substantive efforts to remember this foundational sin of American democracy. If you have ever traveled to Alabama and Mississippi, to Atlanta or Memphis, you know what I mean. Freedom Trails and museums abound. Memorialization ensures like a torch of truth and hope that such abominable actions will never happen again.
In Delaware and Maryland where I have been staying for the past two weeks, there are a number of markers in places relevant to the lives of both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Now lush fields of private farms, these corners of land where both were born into servitude were once part of a vast plantation network. In the hot sun on a summer day, with cicadas singing eerie remembrances, locust-like warnings of an exodus sure to come, it’s not hard to feel the need to run for freedom. And the waterways of the Eastern Shore, the Chesapeake’s ample power to save, explains it all. Called the Moses of her people, Harriet Tubman fled and returned on numerous occasions, delivering to freedom countless enslaved persons. Beaten, tortured, but never into submission, she performed miracles of her own, affirming the Talmudic adage, “She who saves one life is reckoned as if she has saved the entire world.”
Between the cornfields in Easton, Maryland, and the sandy streets of Baltimore, Frederick Douglass defied the law and learned to read and write, eventually becoming one of the most prolific orators and eloquent spokespeople for freedom and justice in all of Western civilization. It is humbling and inspiring to stand in these places.
If God said to Cain when he slew his brother Abel that “Your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the land,” then surely in the places where Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass fought for freedom for their people, God says, “Your sisters’ and brothers’ battle for justice cries out to Me from the land.”
I’ve stood there. I swear you can hear it.
צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף לְמַ֤עַן תִּֽחְיֶה֙ וְיָרַשְׁתָּ֣ אֶת־הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֶ֖יךָ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽךְ׃
Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the LORD your God is giving you.
In this week’s Torah reading, Shoftim, we hear Moses tell the people that the price we pay for the privilege of living in the land is to never waver from pursuing justice. So critical is this message that the word for justice is repeated.
The commentator Ibn Ezra explains that the word is repeated because one is obligated to pursue justice whether one is to gain or lose. We are servants of justice and its ideals, he argues.
Several other rabbis throughout Jewish history have understood that the word “justice” is repeated here because the pursuit of justice is ongoing; it is never complete.
In the quiet city of Minsk last week, 200,000 people turned out to protest an unfair election. Following closely my ancestral homeland, it’s frightful to imagine the violence that may result but the determination for freedom and justice is empowering a nation for the first time. It is remarkable to behold.
Similarly, our own streets in America, throughout the past several months, have broiled with the ongoing injustice of our own peculiar American racism. The whiplash effect of the pride and joy of an African American and South Asian woman nominated for the office of vice president while vast inequalities continue to exist is proof that each victory we achieve begets more work to be done.
The reward for a mitzvah, the rabbis teach, is another mitzvah.
Let’s keep going in the pursuit of justice: for our people, for all people, so that we all may be free.
We are now entering the month of Elul, the last month on the Hebrew calendar before Tishri brings us Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This is a sacred time for reflection and action, an examination of our souls and the opportunity to begin anew. Follow along on Instagram (@jcpdowntown) and Facebook each day, as we invite you to seek your own inspiration from these teachings.