Reparations: Seeding a Better Future

Bo, Exodus 10:1−13:16

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Mary Zamore

“The ongoing wounds of slavery and centuries of entrenched racial discrimination continue to fester and impact every part of American society. Such injustices will endure unless proactive steps are taken to acknowledge and eliminate them. One means of addressing centuries of entrenched racial discrimination is through reparations. Reparations can take many forms including expressions of remorse, education, monetary compensation, and more.” – Excerpted from URJ’s 2019 Resolution on the Study and Development of Reparations for Slavery and Systemic Racism in the U.S.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bo, as the soon-to-be freed Israelites prepare to leave Egypt, the Egyptians are struck with the plagues of locusts, darkness, and death of the firstborn. After the darkness, God instructs Moses: “Tell the people to borrow, each man from his neighbor and each woman from hers, objects of silver and gold” (Exodus 11:2).* The text continues: “The Eternal disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people” (Exodus 11:3).

These verses have led to much discussion in biblical commentaries on a central ethical question: Did the Egyptians willingly and freely give the Israelites their treasures? A fulcrum for these commentaries, the Hebrew word v'yishalu, translated here as “borrow,” can also mean “ask” or even “demand” (Exodus 11:2). This opens a debate about the transparency of the Israelites’ intention to take these objects out of  Egypt forever. Another hub of commentary explores God’s role in predisposing the Egyptians to give away their precious possessions. Like the controversies over the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, there are numerous unresolved questions around free will and integrity.

The ethical questions surrounding these verses ask whether the Israelites received their reparations fairly. However, the contradictions within the text do not deny the narrative’s basic premise that the Israelites labored as slaves for more than 400 years in Egypt. They had sojourned to Egypt to flee famine in Israel, stayed at Pharaoh’s behest, and then were enslaved when the political winds shifted.

According to the Torah, 600,000 Israelites were freed from Egyptian servitude (Exodus 12:37). The silver and gold they received is widely considered as compensation for their unpaid labor, as well as recognition of their suffering. (Jubilees 48:18; BT, Sanhedrin 91a) The reparation would help jumpstart their new lives (Peninei Halakhah, Pesach 1:4:4).

The Egyptian valuables may be likened to the items given to the Hebrew indentured debt-servant upon released from servitude: “When you set him free, do not let him go empty-handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which the Eternal your God has blessed you” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14). In this case, the servant was bound into servitude to pay off debt and released in the Sabbatical year, not enslaved for generations (Deuteronomy 15:12). The animals and produce the freed servant received helped seed a new life and offered an opportunity to rebuild financial security. 

This parashah also raises the question: Why did God tell the Israelites to ask for silver and gold rather than work animals and produce? Precious metals hold value. They are not perishable or susceptible to disease; they do not need water and feed; they travel easily. In addition, the Israelites left Egypt with their own herds. Later, God sustained them with manna, and Miriam helped them find water. Then, for what purpose did they need silver and gold? According to several commentaries, they would be used in the building of the mishkan, the portable tabernacle (Midrash Tanchuma, Terumah, 4; Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 12:35:1; Or HaChaim on Exodus 25:2).

Reparations do not merely pay wages lost, they restore psychological and financial security. They allow those held back by injustice to dream of a future and invest in it. At their best, they are customized to the needs of the people who have been wronged. In a 2019 New Yorker article, Ta-Nehisi Coates explained the process by which Americans need to explore reparations as part of the repair of 400 years of systematic racism in America:

“A policy for repair. I think what you need to do is you need to figure out what the exact axes of white supremacy are, and have been, and find out a policy to repair each of those. In other words, this is not just a mass payment.”

The needed reparations, Coates argues, must consider the extensive violence done to Black Americans and the massive loss of generational wealth systematically denied to our fellow citizens for four centuries. His position is reflected in the Union for Reform Judaism’s 2019 Resolution on the Study and Development of Reparations for Slavery and Systemic Racism in the U.S., which calls on Reform Jews to:

  1. Advocate for the creation of a federal commission to study and develop proposals for reparations to redress the historic and continuing effects of slavery and subsequent systemic racial, societal, and economic discrimination against Black Americans;
  2. Urge our congregations and their members to take active steps to redress the destructive effects of historic and ongoing systemic racism, including through education and conversations within our congregations and communities using resources such as the RAC’s Reflect, Relate, Reform toolkit, and other nationally recognized resources; and
  3. Commit to ongoing assessment and evaluation to strengthen our own institutions’ efforts to combat implicit and explicit bias and promote racial equity.

Parashat Bo shows us that reparations must be customized to the recipients’ requirements. May we listen carefully to the pain inflicted on our fellow citizens to understand what Black Americans need to seed a better future. As we strive to be antiracist, may we be open to the possibilities of reparations and repair.

*Note that earlier God twice predestines these verses, “But then I will bring judgment upon the nation they are serving; after that they shall go out with many possessions” (Genesis 15:14) and “And I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed. Each woman shall borrow from her neighbor and the lodger in her house objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping the Egyptians” (Exodus 3:21-22).

To take action for modern-day reparations, Reform Jews in the U.S. can join the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in writing to Congress in support of the study and development of reparation proposals. Visit www.rac.org/reparations to write to your elected officials now, and learn more about the RAC's racial justice work.