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Plagues, Race, and the Stories We Tell

Rabbi Sarah Marion
Parshat Bo
January 22, 2021
Plagues, Race, and the Stories We Tell

Blood. Frogs. Lice. Cattle Disease.   

Every year at our Passover tables, we recall a familiar story.   A cruel, hard-hearted Egyptian king, who refuses to free his Israelite slaves from bondage.   A humble Israelite runaway who is summoned by God to return to Egypt and demand freedom for his people.   A heroic God, who actualizes Moses’ quest through mighty powers and awesome might.   Locusts. Darkness. Death of the firstborn.   Pharaoh is finally convinced, to let the people go.

But what if…this wasn’t exactly how it happened?   What if, for centuries, we have been telling ourselves a partial version of the truth?

It doesn’t take too close of a read into this week’s Torah portion – Parshat Bo – to begin to question everything we have been taught and everything we have been told, from generation to generation.   All we have to do, is take in the first two verses, which go like this:

“Then God said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers, in order that I may display My signs and wonders among them, and that you may recount how I made a mockery of the Egyptians – in order that you may know that I am Adonai.”[1]

And so it went – before and after every subsequent plague – we read that God, again and again, hardened Pharaoh’s heart, so that Pharaoh would not let the people go.[2]

There is no doubt, that this was a Pharaoh who was merciless, coldhearted, and cruel. But when the time and the possibility came for the Israelites to leave Egypt –   it wasn’t Pharaoh who ultimately got it the way – it was God.   Our God.   It was our God, who had more than a bit of an ego, to say the least.   It was our God, who envisioned and executed a phenomenal power play   for the sole purpose of making it known – for the record – who was really in charge.   From a historical perspective, this actually makes a lot of sense.   Our ancestors who transmitted and then transcribed our biblical stories   lived in a polytheistic world.   And so at every opportunity possible, it was critical for them to showcase that their God – that our God – was the best, above all the others.   The one, the only, worth following.

But now, thousands of years later, the reality – or, even the possibility – that our God kept us enslaved longer than necessary in order to “show off” some divine might…   and the possibility that our God engendered widespread pain and suffering – to the point of murdering innocent Egyptian children – simply to flex a few “divine muscles” for the rest of the world to see – this doesn’t really sit well, now does it.

And so because this narrative, this possible truth about our God doesn’t really sit well – we tell ourselves another story, instead.   We tell ourselves that despite Moses’ best efforts, Pharaoh hardened a wall around his heart that was so strong, that God was forced to intervene, and the Egyptian people were forced to suffer.   We tell ourselves that innocent children died, because of Pharaoh’s stubbornness and immorality.   We tell ourselves these things, because we want to believe that our God   is always righteous, that our history is moral, and that our role in it, is just.

But, unfortunately, whether we want to believe it or not, this is not always the case.

Our God has not always been righteous.   Our Jewish history has not always been moral. And our role in that history has not always been just.

And that is not always an easy thing to admit.

But over the past four years, and, especially, in recent weeks, I think that we have come to appreciate and understand – just how much the truth matters.   I think we have come to recognize just how much telling and perpetuating as accurate a story as possible – matters.   Even if that story is painful.   Even if we wish it didn’t happen the way that it did.   Even if we wish that our role in the story, was different.

Here is another story that we like to tell about ourselves, which isn’t entirely true.  Another story that we like to perpetuate about ourselves is that Jews are not racist people, and that Jewish communities are not racist places.   Because, after all, we were slaves too.   We, too, have known what it is like to be subjugated, persecuted, regarded as less than human.   And haven’t you seen that iconic photo of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching, arm in arm, with Dr. Martin Luther King?

To be sure, there have been many, many white Jews – past and present – who have boldly and courageously stood up for racial justice.   To be sure, there are many, many synagogues and Jewish communities – including our own – that have been making a tremendous commitment in the quest to dismantle systemic racism.

But even still – that is not the whole story.   Even still – our Jewish communities – past and present – have perpetuated the very systems that we claim to reject. 

Many of us know about Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King – but I suspect that not many of us know about Sol Tepper, a Jew from Selma who unwaveringly represented Jewish and white resistance to the Civil Rights movement   in the 50’s and 60’s.   And lest we think that Tepper acted alone – in January of 1956,   the members of the Selma B’nai Brith organized and issued a declaration, urging groups like the ADL and the American Jewish Committee to quote “avoid intervening in affairs   outside of the Jewish community, particularly on the issue of Civil Rights.”[3]

Certainly, we have come a long way since then.   And yet, even despite the mission statements on every Reform synagogue web page, touting how warm and welcoming we are, this isn’t always the case.

At the last Union for Reform Judaism Biennial Conference   in December of 2019, the Reform community got a hard and painful wakeup call from Marra Gad, a biracial author and speaker, who grew up, in her words, “as engaged as a Jewish child could be.”  Marra had been invited to the biennial to speak about her debut memoir, The Color of Love.  After the conference was over, she did not sugarcoat or hide the story that needed to be told about her painful experience among thousands of primarily white Reform Jews, over the course of those four days.   In a Facebook post that went viral – and then an article in Tablet Magazine, she wrote:

“I was assumed to be hotel staff.   Twice.   Even while wearing my bridge orange “Presenter” badge.   And I was told that I needed to do more to get room service orders out faster.   I was repeatedly and incredulously asked, “What are you doing here?   And when I replied that I was a speaker on Shabbat afternoon, I was asked what I could possibly have to speak about.   I ended up in an elevator filled with attendees who whispered about me like I wasn’t there.   What was I doing there, and again, what could I possibly be presenting about?   Stared at.   Confronted.   Whispered about.   And assumed to work for the hotel.   It all grew so uncomfortable for me to be out with the general population that I had to be escorted from place to place by URJ staff.”[4]

This is not a story about ourselves that we want to hear.   But the truth matters.

Here is another truth that matters.   As much as I try and strive to be an anti-racist person and an anti-racist rabbi, I too, sometimes fall short.   Last year, back when we were still able to celebrate Shabbat together in person, I was standing at the foot of the bima with Cantor Blum, leading our Friday night service, when a black man who I did not recognize entered the sanctuary shortly after Lecha Dodi, and took a seat in the back row.   Immediately, fear kicked in.   I felt my heart start to beat faster and had trouble focusing on the words.   Images of the worst swarmed through my mind.   Eventually, I managed to convince myself that, in all likelihood, there was nothing to worry about.  That we have a guard, who knows how to do his job, so that I can do mine.   And eventually, I knew, that if this person were white and “looked Jewish,” I likely would never have even noticed that he was there.

This is not a story about myself that I like or that I want to tell.  But it is the truth.  And the truth matters.  The truth matters, because without it, we cannot see the problem, in the first place.  Without it, we cannot begin to repair what is broken.

In 2008, after President Obama was elected, we told a story about ourselves that we so desperately wanted to hear and so desperately wanted to believe. We told ourselves that because we had finally elected a black president, that we were no longer a racist society. That we, as a country, had finally conquered our racist plagues of the past. And in the years the followed, we saw just how wrong we were. In the years that followed, we saw the dire consequences, of telling the story that we wanted to hear, rather than the story that we needed to hear. 

And now with the first woman and the first black and first the south Asian individual to be sworn into the Vice Presidency, I so desperately hope that we do not make that same mistake again. With Vice President Kamala Harris, it is tempting, once again, to pat ourselves on the back, and tell ourselves that we have conquered sexism. That we have conquered racism. But, in fact, we have hardly done that. But, in fact, the story of our redemption is just, finally, getting started.

During Wednesday’s Inauguration, a 22 year-old modern day prophet named Amanda Gorman took the stage, and spoke some of the truest words that I have ever heard:

“Being American – she reminded us – is the past we step into – and how we repair it.”[5]

Another prophet from another time – Moses Maimonides, taught: “Talmud Torah mipnei Tikkun HaOlam”[6] – the Study of Torah – the Study of our Past – is done for the sake of Tikkun Olam – for the repair of the world.[7]

And so…

…so, too, being Jewish is the past that we step in to, and the way that we work to repair it.

And it starts with the truth.

[1] Exodus 10:1-2

[2] Exodus 10:20, 10:27, 11:10, etc.

[3] “Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities – Selma, Alabama”

 ISJL – Alabama Selma Encyclopedia – Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life

[4] Marra Gad, “Racism in the Jewish Community,” Tablet Magazine, May 5, 2020.

[5] Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb,” Delivered at the Presidential Inauguration on January 20, 2021.

[6] My original Hebrew phrase/understanding/interpretation of Maimonides’ teachings

[7] See Maimonides commentary on the Mishnah, Avot 1:2