built on a stolen beam
"Bo el Pharaoh," begins our parsha. Go tell Pharaoh, to let my people go!
On Shabbat Shuva I began a conversation about reparations for Black Americans and teshuva. In his 2018 article "The Torah Case for Reparations" Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein eloquently writes, "Slavery and its aftermath sit at the heart of the mythic consciousness of any religion or culture that descends from the Hebrew Bible." Bernstein goes on to summarize the contemporary Jewish voices making a case for reparations. Most compelling, in my opinion, is the Rosh Hashanah 5778 sermon by Rabbi Sharon Brous calling for Jewish support for reparations to Black Americans. In it she summons a famous, early Talmudic teaching in which the Schools of Hillel and Shammai dispute the method of making restitution when a stolen beam is built into the foundation of a house but agree that restitution must be made (B.T. Gittin 55a). "Our country was built on a stolen beam," preached Rabbi Brous. "Except it was several million stolen beams. And they weren't beams; they were human beings."
For Bernstein, the Jewish vision of reparations begins in this week's parshah. Parshat Bo includes the final three devastating plagues—locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn—which finally lead Pharaoh to insist the Israelites must go. But there is a brief but important interlude between the 9th and 10th plague. God says to Moses:
"Tell the people to request (v'yishalu), each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold" (Exodus 11:2).
And they did just that. So that when it was time to go,
"The Israelites had done Moses' bidding and borrowed (v'yishalu) from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing...And they let them have their request; thus they stripped the Egyptians" (Exodus 12:35-6).
As I was studying these ideas with Betsy, in preparation for her Bat Mitzvah tomorrow, I repeatedly felt that these verses present an insufficient model of reparations. In this case, the use of the Hebrew root sha'al--often translated as request, ask, or borrow--conveys tentative permanence and is uncertain in its willfulness. The very concept of reparations as described by the Movement for Black Lives asserts, "The government, responsible corporations and other institutions that have profited off of the harm they have inflicted on Black people—from colonialism to slavery through food and housing redlining, mass incarceration, and surveillance—must repair the harm done." In this demand I see an essential aspect of the nature of reparations. Those who have profited are responsible for the process of repair. In Jewish tradition, we would call this teshuvah—a process of reparations and restorative justice. However, what we see in the parshah is the Israelites reclaiming, some might even say stealing back, wealth they feel was due to them. While this might have allowed them to leave Egypt with something of value, it did nothing to actually restore the humanity of the slaves or slave owners. Which is what I feel is at stake when we talk about reparations in the United States.
What we know is that the concept of teshuvah, the possibility of restorative justice, is woven into the fabric of the universe. The world cannot exist without it. According to Maimonides, the first step in teshuva is to stop causing harm. This is actually where we find ourselves as a country.
In the words of Bryan Stevenson, "I don’t believe slavery ended in 1865, I believe it just evolved." We must end slavery in every context it exists, including in prisons. Then we must acknowledge, take responsibility for, and repair the harm we have caused. This will require radical imagination. Whatever we imagine as real democracy, real teshuva, must be part of it. The Movement for Black Lives is calling for reparations for African Americans. I think it is upon each of us individually and us as a community to wonder what role we can play.
At the end of the first chapter of Just Mercy, Stevenson compassionately says, "Each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done." In this election season, I am trying to believe that this country can be more than the worst things it has perpetrated. A real process of teshuva and reparations is essential to living into that potential.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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