There are holidays and festivals that celebrate an event or a value of timeless and objective worth, and then there are some that mark a transition away from something shameful that should never have existed in the first place. Felt by its participants as a great deliverance, the holiday nevertheless remains awkward because it shouldn’t have been necessary at all.
It should not be necessary to celebrate the end of slavery. Buying and selling human beings as though they are property is a violation so profound that it staggers the imagination to know that it was once ubiquitous. The American addition to this venal ancient practice was to add racism into the mix and to raise the level of lethal violence and systemic degradation well beyond anything practiced in antiquity. We continue to live with its legacy and our culture suffers from the afterlife of many of its basic assumptions and props.
Freedom should be the birthright of all people. It should be assumed as obvious and natural, rather than a rare emergence that becomes noteworthy and a cause for celebration. But such is human mendacity that the end of slavery draws our attention and invites us to take a breath, to pause from our toleration of human evil, and to renew our commitment to the Biblical ideal that all people are made in God’s image.
On June 19, 1865, Major General Gordon Granger issued a proclamation proclaiming freedom for the slaves in Texas. This date is, in a sense, America’s second Independence Day. It invites every American to reflect on the injustice of human trafficking in general, but to focus particularly on the ways that African Americans have borne a unique and brutal brunt of racism and white supremacy. To birth the nation anew, under a charter of equal justice for all, education about the shameful events in our past (in addition to the proud ones), and a rallying around the struggle against racism and bigotry today remains a priority of the highest degree.
“One law for the resident and the stranger” and the commandment to “love your fellow as yourself” are both the Torah’s most repeated and, arguably, its most vital imperative. As Jews, we know through our own national memory the blight of slavery and a bloody trail of degradation, poverty, and exile that are the legacy of Antisemitism. Both through sacred text and ancestral memory, we know that all people share a common promise, that we are all children of the same Oneness who summons us, even know, toward greater fraternity with each other.