The lesson that we have to learn from Juneteenth

On the occasion, this past Friday, of Juneteenth, marking the “official” end of slavery in the the United States, I shared these words with our community during our erev Shabbat services and, now, I am happy to be able to share them with all of you:

As the Israelites set out from Mt. Sinai, at the beginning of the Book of Numbers (just a few weeks ago!), for their triumphant march to freedom into the Promised Land, it does not take too long for things to quickly fall apart. Amidst fears, loss of faith, internal competitions for power, despair, and even a desire to return to the good ol’ days in Egypt, what should have been a glorious trek to a brand new future as free men and women, this generation of Israelites seal their disastrous fate in doom. None of this generation will make it to the new land.

In our parashah, Shelach Lecha, Moses sends out representatives from each of the 12 tribes to scout this new land. Moses charges them to go and see what kind of country is it, what are the people like? How is the soil? Oh, and bring back some of the fruit of the land. No, problem, right?! Well, the spies return and chaos ensues. Ten of the spies report that it is true the land is fruitful and bountiful but it’s people are gigantic, and they report that they felt like grasshoppers next to those who dwell there. There is no way we can be victorious they conclude. Only Joshua and Caleb believe that they will surely be successful in their mission. The people begin to revolt and protest wildly and clamor to return to Egypt.

At every step of the way, the Israelites undermine their own success to achieve their freedom in the Promised Land. A Promised Land that represents, on a symbolic level, the realization of our greatest hopes and dreams, the attainment of our full potential and possibilities. We, of course, are still waiting to enter the Promised Land of our dreams, a world where everyone is viewed as equals and is treated with respect and dignity. A world where all are treated with justice no matter the color of their skin, their faith or their gender identity. Where we all have access to the basic resources to live a healthy, safe and secure life. To raise our children in comfort and peace, where we don’t have to worry whether they will come back alive at the end of the day or not.

On this Juneteenth, we celebrate the promise of liberation but also realize that it is a clarion call to continue the hard work that remains to be done.  How bitter it is to see, in fact, how little we have come in the last 155 years. When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1863 and finally fully realized in 1865 with the release of the last slaves in Texas, the possibility of freedom stretched out before the former slaves with great promise. But unlike the Israelites, who turned out to be their own worst enemies, the freed American slaves were met by brutal obstacles and walls at every turn from those around them, whether it was horrendous racist ideals or laws that continued to subjugate them in new ways. All around them, a system was being created to thwart their journey to freedom and keep them walled off, separate and nowhere near equal. This fight for equality has gone on so long and yet the Promised Land still seems so far away. Today, our nation is caught up in a passionate struggle to find our way to justice and equality for African Americans and other people of color, in the Promised Land.

In the Summer of 1964 a group of primarily Reform rabbis were arrested when they travelled to the south to participate in the freedom marches of that summer at the invitation of Martin Luther King Jr. In some way, they were our spies, scouting out the difficult road that lay ahead of us. The words of these rabbis were recorded in a letter from the jail in St. Augustine, Florida. They wrote in part…

“We came to St. Augustine mainly because we could not stay away. We could not say no to Martin Luther King, whom we always respected and admired and whose loyal friends we hope we shall be in the days to come. We could not pass by the opportunity to achieve a moral goal by moral means – a rare modern privilege – which has been the glory of the non-violent struggle for civil rights.

“We came because we could not stand quietly by our brother’s blood. We had done that too many times before. We have been vocal in our exhortation of others but the idleness of our hands too often revealed an inner silence; silence at a time when silence has become the unpardonable sin of our time. We came in the hope that the God of us all would accept our small involvement as partial atonement for the many things we wish we had done before and often.

“We do not underestimate what yet remains to be done, in the north as well as the south. In the battle against racism, we have participated here in only a skirmish. But the total effect of all such demonstrations has created a Revolution; and the conscience of the nation has been aroused as never before. The Civil Rights Bill will become law and much more progress will be attained because this national conscience has been touched in this and other places in the struggle.”

And now, we have come to this point. The dreams of nearly 60 years ago appear to have been stymied. Will we be able to once again arouse the conscience of our nation? Will we be able to finally inspire the soul of our nation to come together? How are we to move forward? Where are we to find our strength? Perhaps a lesson can be gleaned from this week’s parashah.

My colleague Rabbi Andy Vogel shared this teaching on Shelach L’cha, concerning what it means to be strong:  The Midrash (Tanchuma #6) suggests that the spies misunderstood Moses — he *wanted* them to see how strong the land was. If the people live in fortified cities, it shows that they are weak!  That is: A people who closes themselves off behind thick walls is weak, not strong. A strong person allows for vulnerability in themselves, and lives out in the open, maybe even makes themselves uncomfortable on purpose, to grow and learn. Even more, the Hasidic teaching in Toldot Yaakov Yosef suggests that a truly whole/strong person is one who comes from beyond their walls, and walks outwardly among other people, saying “Maybe I will see something that I can fix…”

This is the lesson that we have to learn today! Walls do not make us stronger. They are, in fact, a sign of weakness and vulnerability. We need to stop creating walls that segregate our black brothers and sisters. We need to remove the walls that systemically prevent our African American siblings from accessing the same rights and privileges that we enjoy. We need to lift up the walls that have crushed the black spirit for far too long with fear, mistrust, violence and deprivation. And, most importantly, we need to stop hiding behind the safe walls of our white privilege. We need to come out from behind our walls to seek out others in our community as ask “maybe, there is something here that I can fix.”  To help us in this journey, here is a very powerful resource to educate ourselves about race and guide us towards uprooting its systemic and implicit tentacles that have infiltrated every part of our society, and the hearts and minds of people everywhere:

The spies all see the same things—a land flowing with milk and honey, fortified and strong—and yet 10 feel defeated and unable to perceive a successful path into the Promised Land while Joshua’s and Caleb’s vision is not limited to what they merely see before them. They can imagine with faith and hope a completely different outcome with God’s help. Discerning the possible, even when things look challenging, is the great lesson we can learn from the spies.

So, let us be emancipated from our silence and our apathy. Let us turn from building walls to building bridges. Let us not turn away from those who are different but towards our friends and neighbors and build instead alliances and commitments to work together so that we can all reach the Promised Land together. Ken Y’hi Ratzon, May this be God’s will for  us.

With Blessings,

Rabbi Greg