It has been a particularly troubling year for race relations in America. Places like Ferguson, Missouri have become emblematic of a deep and enduring frustration among many people of color: why is it so difficult to communicate to the vast majority of whites just what it feels like to be brown or black -
What is it to be refused a taxi, or shadowed by a clerk in a high-end boutique, what is it to be pulled off the highway, or refused an apartment or a job - all for being black - White women and men have been spared, by accident of birth, from such demeaning experiences.
As we enter Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath before Passover, the Jewish soul sets out on a journey to rediscover its past. Toward this end, with all that has happened this year, it seemed appropriate to compare Israel's experience of servitude in Egypt with the African-American experience of slavery in this country's lands.
Today's Jew has no immediate memory of the sting of the lash. Yet each Passover, the Children of Israel are commanded to imagine life beneath the fist of Pharaoh. In fact, each day, in our liturgy, we revisit slavery and Exodus during the recitation of Shema. All this may suggest that while the physical wounds of slavery healed long ago, as evidenced by our collective consciousness and a host of memorializing rituals, some scars are ineffaceable.
It is perhaps these ineffaceable scars that have made Jews empathic to the cause of Civil Rights and great activists for social equality throughout the world. However, to believe that every minority suffers (or suffered) the same sort of oppression is itself a form of oppression. Against this end, I would like to suggest that in many ways African-American slaves suffered far more than the Hebrews did in Egypt.
It is true that both African-Americans and Israelites were enslaved for many years. Dr. King was fond of reminding his listeners that the first slave ship arrived on American shores in 1616, several years before the pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock on the Mayflower. His goal was to remind black Americans that they had as much right to the bounty of America as any of the white men and women whose ancestors had set sail from European ports.
The length of Israel's enslavement is matter of some debate, one Biblical verse refers to a period of "four generations," another verse speaks of "400 hundred years" and yet another of "430 years." (Gen 15:13,16; Ex. 6; 12:40) However, Israel arrived in Egypt in a manner that was altogether different from African slaves who, stolen from their homes and packed like sardines in slave-ships, many did not survive the trek across the Atlantic. In contrast, Jacob and his clan of seventy souls arrived on royal wagons and were greeted, quite literally, with a King's welcome. (Gen. 46) At Joseph and Pharaoh's behest, they settled in Goshen, a fertile land, and were immediately charged with raising Pharaoh's herds. (Gen. 47)
If African-American slaves had no memory of their ancestors being free in America, the Children of Israel - through Joseph - were immediately integrated into the elite of Egyptian society. Restoring what is lost is a different battle than gaining what one never had.
Another difference. According to the American 'Slaves Codes,' black slaves could not own property, nor were their marriages accepted by many whites. The latter made it easier for white slave owners to break up families. Other plantation owners encouraged marriage so black men would not flee on account of their families. But black adults and children were chattel in every sense of the word. On the other hand, a close reading of the book of Exodus indicates that Israelites were left to marry whomever they liked: Of Moses' parents we read that "a Levite man went forth and took (in marriage) a Levite woman" (Ex. 2.1). It is also quite clear that the Israelites kept many personal possessions. Moses and Pharaoh negotiate at length about Israel's flocks and herds (Ex. 9:4; 10:9,24). Each family had its paschal lamb and a home in which to smear the blood of the Paschal Lamb.
This brings to mind another difference, Pharaoh, was little troubled by the fact that Israel's faith differed from the natives. Even the use of the sacred ram as a sacrifice could be mitigated and permitted if Israel travelled a three-day distance away from Egypt's population centers. (Ex. 8.23) In contrast, Africans slaves were forced to abandon their native religion and compelled to convert to Christianity.
In the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, the United States offered white pioneers acres upon acres of land to settle in the West. Despite the years of forced servitude, suffering and depravation, black citizens were given nothing in the way of restitution, nor were they even offered the same opportunities given to white pioneers in the late 19th century who went west in droves. In contrast, according to Jewish tradition, Israel plundered Egypt with gusto, taking gold, silver, and cloth. (Ex. 12.35)
A final difference. One can leave to the imagination to what extent the Semitic Israelites differed in appearance from the North-African Egyptians. It would hardly matter because whatever bigotries and prejudices existed among the Egyptians, all of that was left behind during the Exodus. Yet African-Americans had no such Exodus nor were they brought to any Promised Land. After the Civil War they may have been free from slavery, but they were never free from the racism and bigotries of their white neighbors. Left in destitute poverty and illiteracy, African-Americans hardly had the means to better their circumstances.
I will conclude with one common theme. We Americans love to idolize mythologies of self-made men and women. So beholden are we to "bootstrap" movies and books, we tend to forget the old truth that there is no redemption without intervention. The Passover Haggada is emphatic on this point, had it not been for God's outstretched hand, we would still be slaves to Pharaoh. Slavery would have never ended in this country without a President such as Lincoln, who was willing to endure the costs of hundreds of thousands of American lives.
With all the tragedies witnessed this year, perhaps I might suggest a fifth question during this year's seder: what is it like to be black in America - It is the sort of question Pharaoh's daughter most likely asked before she stretched her hand upon the Nile and rescued a little boy.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover