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A Bond Born of Bondage

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Leaders of the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress is standing behind the two chairs and speaking to Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee. See end of post for all identities and affiliations. Copyright: Unknown or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

 

Our Torah portion, Ki Tavo, contains the text that serves as the beginning of “Maggid” (Narration) section of our Passover Haggadah. It instructs us as to how to relate to our children, and to all future generations, our sacred history as a people.

You shall then recite as follows before the Eternal your God: “My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. 6 The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. 7 We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. 8 The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. 9 He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me.” (Deuteronomy 26.5-10)

Our experience of enslavement is the foundation of our ethical mandate as a people. It teaches us to stand up for justice in the world, particularly on behalf of those who are oppressed and disadvantaged. Our Biblical story of Egyptian bondage also has been most compelling within the African American experience in America, and it is crystal clear as to why. With this historical background and similarity of experiences, the black and Jewish communities in America have always shared a profound spiritual and social bond.

It is fortuitous that we should be reading this portion during this particular week, as we anticipate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, on August 28th. In September of 1963, segregation was a blight upon our country. But the Civil Rights Movement ultimately defeated this pernicious racial discrimination and separatism, and eventually the so-called “Jim Crow” laws were overturned.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. delivering his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. Copyright Unknown? – This media is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the ARC Identifier (National Archives Identifier) 542069.

Though there is much more to say, and we will have an opportunity to do that, perhaps we all would do well to listen to two of the outstanding speeches of that day. As I have mentioned in the past, there was another extremely moving speech delivered that day, just before Dr. King’s, by Rabbi Dr. Joachim Prinz, who was given the honor of addressing the crowd in his capacity as the then President of the American Jewish Congress. Rabbi Prinz came to America from his native Berlin when he was expelled from Germany in 1937. Eventually he became the Rabbi of Congregation B’nai Abraham, first in Newark, and then in Livingston. He was one of ten who served as founding organizers of the March on Washington.
Listen to Dr. Prinz’s speech. I promise you will be well rewarded.

As you know, Rev. Dr. Martin LutherKing delivered one of the most towering pieces of oratory ever recorded, his “I Have a Dream” speech.

[Note: The leader of the March on Washington on the top photos are from left to right: Mathew Ahmann, Executive Director of the National Catholic Conference for Interracial Justice; (seated with glasses) Cleveland Robinson, Chairman of the Demonstration Committee; (standing behind the two chairs) Rabbi Joachim Prinz, President of the American Jewish Congress; (beside Robinson is) A. Philip Randolph, organizer of the demonstration, veteran labor leader who helped to found the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, American Federation of Labor (AFL), and a former vice president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO); (wearing a bow tie and standing beside Prinz is) Joseph Rauh, Jr, a Washington, DC attorney and civil rights, peace, and union activist; John Lewis, Chairman, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee; and Floyd McKissick, National Chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality.]

 

Be A Human Being

“Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey from Egypt; how he cut down the stragglers in your rear; those who were famished an weary; and he did not fear God. . . Therefore it shall be that when Adonai your God has given you rest from your enemies round about you, in the Land that is to be your inheritance. . . that you shall blot out the name of Amalek from under Heaven. Do not forget.” (from Deuteronomy 24.17-19)

These verses conclude our Torah portion for this week, Ki Teitzei.

Schindler,_Oskar

Oskar Schindler

During the time that we are in Israel I prefer to bring you vignettes about people and events there that are significant to me in some way. Though we have been home for over a week now, I still would like to tell you about a particularly moving experience that Steve and I had last month – something that had never occurred to us to do before, in all the time we have spent in Jerusalem over the years. With a free morning to ourselves at one point, we decided to take a drive around to the Catholic cemetery on Mount Zion, and visit the grave of Oskar Schindler. Since the area is quite steep, the cemetery is terraced on a number of levels, with steps leading from one level to the next. Except for a small sign on the front gate, there are really no other signs or tourist markers pointing the way to the grave. You just walk down the various levels, and eventually, you come to it. But as soon as you reach that level, it’s clear which grave is Schindler’s. It is covered with small stones, placed there according to Jewish custom upon visiting a cemetery. The grave itself is rather simple – just a horizontal slab, similar to many other graves in Israel. On the top is written “R.I.P.” Then there is a cross, and then his name and dates (1908-1974). And then, two inscriptions. The first, in Hebrew, reads: “Righteous Gentile.” The other, in German, reads: “Unforgettable lifesaver of 1,200 persecuted Jews.”

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Oskar Schindler’s grave in Jerusalem.

Steve and I happened to strike a quiet moment when no one else was there, so we had a very peaceful opportunity to pay our respects, and place a stone on the grave. I have spoken about Oskar Schindler on previous occasions, so I won’t repeat much of it now. We simply recalled to each other that he was, in a number of ways, a rather unsavory character, who originally saw his munitions factory as nothing more than a money-making opportunity. But at a certain point, most probably as he witnessed the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, he experienced an “epiphany” of sorts, and realized that he needed to step outside of himself at that moment, in pursuit of simple human compassion. Of the 1,200 “Schindlerjuden,” there are now some 7,000 descendants who are alive today. A very ordinary individual did an extraordinary thing, beyond what anyone might have expected of him, and what he ever could have expected of himself.

We read in the Mishnah: In a place devoid of humanity, be a human being.

Oskar Schindler was surrounded by Amalakites, and he even walked among them for a little while. Then, he became a human being. Zichrono Liv’rachah, may his memory be for a blessing. Rest in peace, Oskar Schindler.

Blind Justice

Tammany_Ring,_Nast_crop

“Who stole the people’s money?” — “‘Twas him.” (18 August 1871) Thomas Nast’s cartoons of the corruption in Tammany Hall contributed to the fall of Boss Tweed.

We are no strangers to political scandals in our country, particularly those involving the bribery of public officials. Anyone who makes decisions based upon some promise of personal gain, either privately or professionally, compromises the public trust. Our sidra reminds us that bribery is one of the most serious offenses a public official could commit, particularly those who are involved in the judicial system. Every person who comes before the court, either in a criminal or civil proceeding, is supposed to receive equal treatment by the magistrate, regardless of his/her financial or social status. The image of blind justice grows out of the insistence upon equal treatment under the law for all individuals. This notion should be applied not only to judges and public officials, but to anyone entrusted with the responsibility of an organization or community of any kind. The word is שחד- shochad – bribery. The Talmud offers an etymology of the word as a combination of two words: שהוא חד – shehu chad – that it is one. This means that if we take a bribe, we are psychologically linked with the person who gave it to us. The same way we would defend ourselves, so too would we always try to defend the person with whom we became one by taking his bribe.

Underlying this injunction grows out of the fundamental theology of our Torah: we all are created in the divine image, and thus equally entitled to fair and equal treatment; under the law, and in the organizations and communities to which we belong. The rich should not be given any opportunity to use their wealth to wield influence in the public sphere, particularly in legal proceedings.

(Deuteronomy 16.19-20)

You shall not judge unfairly: you shall show no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just. Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.