On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: The Sacred Pursuit for Reparations - Parshat Bo

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs takes a look at Parashat Bo and the behaviors of the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. He asks how we can use this story's moral framework, and our Jewish texts to understand and contextualize the idea of reparations owed to the descendants of kidnapped and enslaved Africans in the United States today.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a new spin on a weekly Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Bo. He contextualizes and provides some Jewish grounding for both the historical and the modern-day understanding of reparations.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Bo from the Book of Exodus. You remember where we are. We're in the master story of the Jewish people, the exodus from Egypt. And of course, we have the rest of the plagues.

And then in the 12th chapter, in verse 35 and 36, we have a very dramatic moment, and the moment is, as the Israelites are picking up and getting ready to leave-- because after the 10th plague is just so much pain in Egypt. The death of the first born are struck down. And then all of a sudden, they are quickly taking their dough before it was leavened. And we are told in 35, the Israelites had done Moses' bidding, and here's the key. [SPEAKING HEBREW] "They borrowed from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold and clothing. And the eternal had disposed--" this is verse 36 of chapter 12. "And the eternal had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the people, and they let them have their request. Thus, they stripped the Egyptians."

Now, you might say, were they really borrowing all this material, all the gold and the silver and the clothing? Or was this actually a moment of reparations? After hundreds of years of enslavement, building pyramids, doing all of these slave projects, was it not just compensation for their toil?

And that is not simply an ancient question, but we see it echoed in Talmud and other sources as well. But first, before I get those other sources, let me just point out in Exodus chapter 3 verse 21 and 22, it says, "And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians so that when you go, you will not go empty." This is before the negotiation with Pharaoh. This is before the plagues.

It says in verse 22 of chapter 3, "But every woman shall ask of her neighbor and of the one lodging in her house silver items and gold items and clothing. And you shall put them upon your sons and upon your daughters, and you shall empty out the Egyptians."

So this is already-- this was not just a moment in the running out of the country. This was already planned, and it was part of the covenant. Go back to Genesis chapter 15 verse 14. It says, "And also that nation whom they shall serve will I judge, and afterward, they come out with significant property." That's already in the Book of Genesis, talking about the enslavement that will be.

So what's pretty clear is that in the Jewish tradition, this was thought of not simply as, we're going to borrow these things, as in kind of mislabeling what the act was. And after all the years of forced and free labor, of brutal and painful suffering and death, of crying out to God for help, for freedom and deliverance, God heard the Israelites and sent them Moses. And then they not only left with their freedom, but also with money bags full of gold and silver.

In the Babylonian Talmud, there's another great example. In Sanhedrin 91, it says, "I will bring you evidence only from the Torah, as it is said, and the Israelites' residence-- which they reside in Egypt-- was 430 years. Give us payment for the labor of 600,000 whom you enslaved in Egypt for those years." This is a dominant theme in the books of the Bible, Genesis and Exodus, and then again in Talmud.

And then we come to a modern moment, and I'm just going to share that in December, we had a spectacular biennial in Chicago. That's the largest Jewish gathering in North America, our Reform Movement there in strength. And one of the amazing resolutions that we passed as a body was a resolution supporting the study of reparations here in the United States.

And the text that we used was really built on our tradition having a moral commitment that we know that there really is in our tradition this very important and very critical way to understand our leaving Egypt-- again, not to make the equivalence between the Egyptian slavery and modern-day experience of blacks in the United States. We're not saying these are equivalent, but if we have a biblical case of slavery that is an example of reparations, it's simply establishing the moral framework to bring this to our world today.

I'm just going to read you a tiny bit from that resolution. By the way, that resolution at the biennial passed overwhelmingly. It was a voice vote, but as we were in the room, there was an overwhelming support for this. It doesn't mean everybody understands what the specifics of the reparations would be, but they understood that this came from the core of our religious and moral tradition.

So in the resolution, it says, including-- this is not the whole, but this is a part. "Some argue that today's generation should not bear the burdens of wrongs committed by their ancestors. Yet as scholar Ta-Nehisi Coates said in his June 19, 2019, testimony before a congressional committee--" and I quote-- "'We honor treaties that date back some 200 years despite no one being alive who signed those treaties. Many of us would love to be taxed for the things we are solely and individually responsible for. But we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.'"

And we also have-- and again, not to make it equivalence, but I'll just remind us that there was an example of reparations in Israel. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors. In 1988, the US formally apologized to more than 100,000 people of Japanese heritage who were subjected to internment during World War II and provided $20,000 to each survivor.

I'm saying there is both a historical and there is a moral and there's a textual underpinning to the concept of reparations. So whatever it is that the United States is going to decide, we as a Reform Movement wanted to affirm that this feels very, very essential, and we are part of a wide coalition of teachers, scholars, activists. We simply are weighing in in support.

I also would share that right after the biennial, I got a call from several of the very liberal Protestant denominations who said, we're already involved in our own process. Can we raise a collective faith voice in support of this work?

So friends, we have this Torah portion, Bo, and it reminds us of not just ancient slavery, but the unjust underpinning to everything related to slavery. And if our ancestors were able to, again, take some gold and silver and clothing with them, it in no way compensated for 430 years of slavery.

Nothing could. That was excruciating. It was debilitating and demoralizing and every word that you could use. Same way in history-- money can't in any way erase that.

And reparations could be a combination of many things. It could be not just apologies. It could be financial. It could also be a new commitment on the part of our government and our people.

So I give you this Torah portion. I give you this 12th chapter of the Book of Exodus, and it may hinge on what even the word [HEBREW] means. In modern Hebrew, if you want to borrow something, that is the word that you use. It also means "to ask." But in the context and in the Genesis and in the Talmudic passages, it's very clear that this is an example of reparations.

So let's not just study our Bible. Let's try to live our deepest commitments, and let's see if there can't be a way for the contemporary experience of slavery in the United States to be religiously supported-- the process of reparations. There's much more to learn. There are lots of people who have expertise for us to gain from.

But let's remember that our Bible isn't simply something we study with respect and that is only about ancient times. It is a moral, clear, strong impetus to live lives of wholeness, of justice. And in doing so, we face the most critical and the most urgent issues facing our world, and I would argue that the consistent and proliferation of racism in this country is something that we're not mildly interested in.

We made a firm commitment not only with the resolution of reparations, but as a biennial that we need to work very much on racism in our own community, the wider community. And it feels like reparations and the study of and the application of may be a very essential component in addressing the racism that is one of the roots of the contemporary situation we find ourselves in.

So open your Torah. Let's together open our hearts. Let's open our minds. Let's open our history, and let's shape a better tomorrow.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

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