Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat B’har-B’chukotai 5781
Lucy, what a beautiful d’var Torah. I love that you connected rest to freedom, Shabbat to Shmita to Yom Kippur to Yovel (Jubilee). I love that you brought us two evocative teachings about t’ruah, the shofar sound that, according to the Mehilta of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, is the sound of breaking chains of slavery, and according to Ketav v’haKabbalah, the sound of fellowship and friendship. I want to come back to this relationship, between freedom, rest, and fellowship in a minute, but first I want to think more about the aspect of breaking the chains of slavery that’s poetically in the shofar’s t’ruah on Yom Kippur and in the yovel, or Jubilee.
Because your Torah portion today, Behar, which includes the Jubilee year, the release of all slaves, also includes the verses that were used by both Jews and Christians for many centuries to justify slavery as ordained by Gd.
Verses 25:44-46 say:
וְעַבְדְּךָ֥ וַאֲמָתְךָ֖ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִהְיוּ־לָ֑ךְ מֵאֵ֣ת הַגּוֹיִ֗ם אֲשֶׁר֙ סְבִיבֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם מֵהֶ֥ם תִּקְנ֖וּ עֶ֥בֶד וְאָמָֽה׃
“It is from the nations round about you that you may acquire male and female slaves. …These shall become your property: you may keep them as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time. Such you may treat as slaves. But as for your Israelite kinsmen, no one shall rule ruthlessly over the other.”
In other words, according to these verses of Torah, Jews (and later Christians) could own non-Israelites as slaves in perpetuity, passing slaves as property to the next generation. Small numbers of Jews did go on to own slaves throughout the centuries, and Jews played a small role — some scholars say a miniscule role — in the slave trade. It’s important to note that antisemitism has played a role in perceptions of Jewish role in slave trading and ownership from the Middle Ages to today, and Jews were disproportionately blamed for slavery throughout our history. In 1991 the Nation of Islam put out a false study about the Jewish role in the slave trade called “The Secret Relationship between Blacks and Jews,” which alleged that Jews dominated the transatlantic slave trade. This is simply not true. However, Jews were slaveowners in Brazil, in the Caribbean in particular Suriname, and to a small degree, in the Southern United States. Jews were just 1.25 percent of slaveowners in the American South, but according to an article by Ken Yellin in the Forward in 2015, before and during the Civil War, Jews in New York, which even then was the largest population of Jews in the country, were either silent about slavery or mostly supported the South and slavery in the war..
Judah Benjamin, the Attorney General of the Confederacy and Robert E Lee’s right hand man, was a Jew. Rabbi Morris Jacob Raphall was an outspoken defender of slavery in the South citing these verses from this parasha to make the case that slavery was endorsed by the Bible and Gd. On the other hand, many Jews were outspoken abolitionists, in the United States and in England. A Jewish woman named Ernestine Rose was called “the queen of the platforms” for her fiery oratory against slavery in the United States. Rabbi David Einhorn, a Reform rabbi, was an outspoken abolitionist and challenged Rabbi Raphall to a public debate arguing that the Bible really stands for freedom and justice for all.
The T’ruah sound has at least two other meanings in our tradition. In the Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 33b), the t’ruah represents the sound of Sisera’s mother upon seeing her dead son. In Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, the t’ruah represents Sarah’s anguished wail when she thinks that Isaac has been killed by Abraham on Mount Moriah. What’s interesting here is that we have the cries of two mothers — one is our foremother Sarah and the other is the mother of an enemy general, Sisera. But the two mothers are united in their weeping for their dead (or perceived as dead) children.
Think about how much weeping there has been on this land since the first slaves arrived here. Think about how many mothers have wailed over their dead children even since the abolition of slavery, deaths through lynching, incarceration, police violence and so much more. In this way, the t’ruah represents both the breaking of chains and the consequences wrought over centuries of those chains. The cries of human anguish from those chains and their legacy. So it’s not an accident that the Yovel, the Jubilee, is marked by the same t’ruah we hear on Yom Kippur, our day of atonement, our day of truth telling, our day of repentance, of reckoning.
Next week, I have the honor of interviewing Heather McGhee, who used to head up Demos, a policy think tank in Washington working against economic inequality. McGhee has a new book out called The Sum of Us — a NY TIMES bestseller that that Obamas are adapting into their Higher Ground podcast. Through extensive research, the book proves the point that American racism has hurt white people as a whole, not just black people. McGhee documents how the policies that built the middle class in America have been largely dismantled over the last 40 years because of racism, because white people didn’t want to share those resources with black people. Those policies started with the New Deal, and they were largely restricted to white people. When the civil rights gains were made in the 60’s, and the barriers to black people were removed, white people changed the laws so as to not share with black people, in many cases taking away their own benefits. Whether we look at public schooling or mortgage subsidies or tax policy or workers rights or the social safety net, program by program was defunded in the face of stereotypes about who would benefit, whether it was welfare cheats or criminals or lazy people (all dog whistles about black people), when in fact white people were the majority of the beneficiaries. The symbol McGhee uses to best illustrate this dynamic is public pools, which used to be central gathering places for many communities but were filled in and planted over after desegregation so that black children couldn’t swim in them. And now, in most places, you have to pay to join a private club or a gym (or a synagogue) to use the pool. Whether it’s education, health care, or living wage jobs, if we could share, if white people could embrace including black people in our public institutions and policies, we all will benefit.
And this brings us back, Lucy, to your vision of the Jubilee, when all the slaves go free, and there is a true rest, like the rest we get a taste of on Shabbat or Yom Kippur. When we are able to move past racism, the legacy of slavery, we will no longer have the gnawing feeling of unfairness, of oppression and domination and exclusion. The t’ruah will transform from the wails of crying mothers to the shouts of joy when the chains of slavery are finally broken, when we have true fellowship across all of our differences, true friendship among all humanity. Then we will sound the shofar as it was meant to sound at the jubilee.