By Sheri Rodman
After the Jewish people were freed from slavery in Egypt, we wandered the desert in search of the promised land. We walked, we camped, we ate manna, and — believe it or not — we kvetched at times, sometimes even longing for our days as slaves. Being tired of manna, we craved the foods of the land we escaped: “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.” (Numbers 11:5)
“Change is hard”, said a San Francisco-based rabbi when he wrote about this Torah portion twelve years ago. He reflected on what comes after change — transition. He said, “Leaving Egypt was a change. Leaving slavery is a transition.” He talked about the inner reorientation and self-redefinition that must take place in order for change to work. I’d argue that everyone, the slaves and the oppressors, and their children, must go through that transition.
Next week we’ll learn that though we made it to the promised land, God determined that we were not quite ready to enter Israel. Forty years later God decided that the decades wandering in the desert and the birth of one new generation was enough for the Jewish people to enter the land of Israel with fresh minds and open hearts. One might have expected smooth sailing once we crossed the threshold into the promised land, but that was not the case. For thousands of years the Jewish people continued to face oppression and expulsion. Today, some see us as the oppressors.
What have we, as Jews, learned from our own history of oppression and unfair treatment that can help us improve race relations in America? God had us wait one generation, but slavery in America ended five generations ago and still today Black Americans and their allies fight for justice and equity.
America has seen many periods of transition. From the Reconstruction era to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights Movement and from generation to generation, we improve. But we still have work to do. We live in a time when our parents remember having to use White-only water fountains on trips to Florida and when Blacks (and Jews, for that matter) weren’t allowed in the neighborhood north of Sheridan Drive in Amherst. It is hard to unsee and unlearn these experiences. For many in our parents’ or grandparents’ generation, the White-only water fountain may have brought feelings of comfort. For many in my generation, it would bring overwhelming discomfort.
In this video about next week’s torah portion they say, “Sometimes old habits are so ingrained they don’t go away easily. Sometimes change takes a long time to happen. Sometimes it waits even for a whole new generation, one not captive to the fears and assumptions of an earlier time.” The video refers to our fears and assumptions stemming from our time as slaves in Egypt. But it’s also the fears and assumptions of the oppressor that need to be reconsidered. Both the oppressed and the oppressor need to go through that period of reorientation and self-redefinition.
In the case of race relations in our country today, will this be the turning point for enough White Americans, especially those in power, to rally behind finally making the transition to a society that is equitable for all? It’s hard for a lot of Whites because they don’t identify as the oppressor, while simultaneously acknowledging that previous generations of White people created the systems of racism that have left Blacks forced to continue “wandering in the desert”.
I can’t help but wonder how we’ll look back on this moment in history in 20 or 50 years from now. Will it prove to be pivotal? For one Minneapolis rabbi, it has been. She talks about once grimacing at the rallying cry “Black Lives Matter” but now, after listening, she comes to understand that it doesn’t mean that other lives don’t matter. But all lives cannot matter unless we work together to ensure that Black lives do.
The correlation between historical segregation in the Twin Cities and the last half-century here in Buffalo is remarkable. The rabbi from Minneapolis talks about the creation of a highway that destroyed and isolated neighborhoods, similar to how our Kensington expressway ultimately cut the East Side community in half.
Nearly 50 years ago, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Morally speaking, there is no limit to the concern one must feel for the suffering of human beings. Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible.”
I feel part of a generation that wants to be held responsible. Hundreds of years later, we know that systemic racism is still present and is the cause of so much suffering and pain and inequality. We are empowered to stand up for what is right and more prepared to wrestle with our own privilege and confront our country’s trail of oppression and poor treatment of Black and Brown people.
Whether or not this moment will prove to be pivotal will likely depend on what we decide to do. How many White people will stop and listen? What action can you take to help move our country forward? Can you learn more and start a book club with friends or family? Can you make sure your childrens’ bookshelves are stocked with opportunities to discuss anti-racism and that their toy boxes have dolls of all races? Can you support a local Black-owned restaurant? Can you ask Black and Brown friends how you can be a better ally?
I hope my generation is equipped with the understanding and skills, deemed worthy by God, and trusted by the leaders in our country positioned to enact change, to finally — six generations later — raise children and grandchildren who are treated with kindness, fairness, and justice, together.
Sheri Rodman is a director at Cambiar Education, serves on the board of the Buffalo Jewish Federation, and is the Vice Chair for the Center for Jewish Engagement and Learning.