FROM THE RABBI’S DESK

 

 

  January/February 2020

 

           An ancient rabbinic practice, "Smichut Parshiyot," always sought to understand and interpret the connections between two disparate, seemingly unrelated verses in Scripture; verses which follow one another in the text of Torah. In Exodus, immediately following the climax of revelation/theophany, during which the Almighty appears & speaks the Ten Commandments (accompanied by lightning, thunder, seismic activity, etc.), we are suddenly warned about the "heart of the slave" (Exodus 21:1). Torah now introduces the legal code of slavery with all the gritty details of the slave's predicament; one of exploitation and oppression. This series of laws is now promulgated immediately after God's Revelation at Sinai and following centuries of Hebrew slavery in Egypt! This transition is meant to sternly and solemnly caution Israel concerning the very human flaw of passing on the sting of humiliation to others, since we know that the most abusive master just might be a former slave. The birthday of Dr. M. L. King is a suitable occasion to study and consider how the American Jewish community, at the turn of the 20th century, responded to the oppression and bigotry suffered by fellow (African) Americans. They championed and drove the cause of civil rights. As soon as certain Jews began feeling a modicum of security as Americans, (despite persistent barriers and quotas which our forebears faced) they embraced the cause of civil rights in a most energetic, rigorous and effective manner. They funded and built the NAACP, bringing to it all the legal, political, judicial, intellectual, moral, financial etc. resources available. These endeavors must be traced back and attributed directly to our Exodus epic; our people's emblem and signature..."Care for the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in an alien land."

          Our master narrative, this book of Exodus, (read during January and February) is a study in the precious idea(l) of human freedom. For this purpose our Torah employs the pedagogical paradigm of The Hebrew slave. One immediately notes the care, consideration and respect which we are required/commanded to practice with these powerless, disenfranchised servants; these wretched, forsaken individuals who could not even indemnify the victims of their own crimes. Ancient Israel had no prison system. In its place, the institution of the Hebrew Slave was established. Unlike other nations of classical antiquity in which slaves were deemed to be sub-human, chattel, without the right to even possess a name-- Israel's system was different. Furthermore, slavery had no racial aspect/dimension in our history. Those unfortunates who occupied the very lowest stratum of Jewish society were carefully protected by the Mosaic legal code. Our Sages taught: "He who acquires a slave, acquires a Master for himself."  One single offense by the master against his servant required the permanent, immediate release of the servant from any further service. The master thus surrendered all of his legal rights in this regard. Slavery was the mechanism for the punishment of criminals in Ancient Israel. The Sages applied these laws of slavery in their strict legislation governing our treatment of fellow human beings-- "over whom we wield no power and exert no control" (unlike the slave).  

          The Prophet Amos taught: "For you (Israel) are no different to me than the Ethiopians (Africans). They are also my children… Saith The Lord"... Amos 9:7.  Moses not only led Israel out of Egypt but he also welcomed the "Errev Rav" to join with Israel. These were groups of alien, mixed race peoples - the multitudes - also enslaved by Pharaoh. They joined themselves to Israel to share in our destiny; in the redemption and liberation and to embark on the exodus with the Hebrew People. We are to care passionately for all who happily share our destiny. As H. Heine remarked: "ever since Exodus, freedom speaks in a Jewish accent." Our mission is Brotherhood, Justice and Peace. Judaism yearns for the day when we can reenact the original Exodus from Egypt and share our freedom and the fruits of its many blessings with all of humankind.

AMEN.