When We Were Slaves : A Sermon on Ferguson and Eikev
August 15, 2014
Rabbi David Kaufman
This week’s Torah portion contains these words from Deuteronomy Chapter 8:
6 Observe the commands of Adonai your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. 7 For Adonai your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; 8 a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; 9 a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills.
10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise Adonai your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget Adonai your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.12 Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, 13 and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, 14 then your heart will become proud and you will forget Adonai your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
What does it mean for us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt?
The obvious answer to that question is that we should be thankful to God for all that we have received. It was, of course, God who brought us forth from slavery in Egypt. The Torah portion makes that answer clear by explaining that if we do not follow God’s commandments, then bad things will happen to us.
Yet, is that all it means for us to remember that we were slaves?
Remembering that we were slaves also should urge us to confront oppression and slavery wherever we see it. Jews throughout the world see exactly that meaning in the words and advocate for freedom and liberty. When Jews see the weeping of the suffering, we weep. We also try to end their suffering.
When we forget that we were slaves- and it is important to understand that this is not a matter of if, but when, then we don’t necessarily do the right thing. Pride is not something that we are lacking. We take pride in our accomplishments and those of our friends and families. We also cherish our wealth and our power. We earned it, after all. Those without either, well…we convince ourselves all too easily, they earned that too.
We all sometimes forget that we were once slaves: poor, powerless, oppressed.
But when the images of oppression are obvious, we pay attention. We pay attention when see discrimination, when we see rights violated, and when we see violence used by the powerful against the weak. We pay attention and challenge decisions even when we’re talking about decisions made by Jews in their defense, such as something Israel might do to ensure its security. We pay attention when we see immigrants being treated poorly, for we remember that we were immigrants. We remember that we once stood before Pharaoh’s mighty army with none of our own.
I have found myself in the position this week of on the one hand addressing the conflict between Israel and Hamas and on the other responding to the events in the northern part of St. Louis, in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed young man was shot and where police descended upon rioters like a military confronting an enemy.
Bear with me for a moment--I hate the phrase “As a Jew.” I think it is generally used by people who want to excuse a sentiment opposed by most Jews, and who in many such cases would like to express why their own personal interpretation of Judaism is the only reasonable one. I would suggest to you, that whenever you see that phrase being used, you are about to see or hear something that the speaker believes is opposed by Jews who are representatives of the Jewish community. Usually the representative speakers would use additional qualifiers such as, “As a Reform Jew,” or “as a Rabbi,” or “as a supporter of Israel.” Never “as a Jew,” and someone who actually represents the Jewish tradition could say, “As Jews, we…”
So where I might say something like “As a Jew, I feel for the oppressed,” with the idea that all Jews should. Instead, I would rather say, “The Jewish tradition reminds us to care about the oppressed and to remember that we slaves,” "As Jews, we feel for the oppressed." We have been at times in our history like the people the people standing before those dressed in armor and at times we have been like those dressed in armor. In fact, one could note that we were both this week, some marching in Ferguson and others defending Israeli from those who would kill them.
I believe that in both cases, Jews were thinking about what Judaism teaches even if in both cases other things may have governed decisions rather than Torah and Talmud.
In fact, in many cases wherein we find Jews being told to remember that we were strangers in Egypt or that we were once slaves, we modern Jews also remember the Shoah and the directive, “Never Again!” So when we see protesters standing before tanks in Ferguson, we remember being slaves. And when we hear those standing before tanks in Gaza and firing rockets into Israel shouting, “Prepare for the annihilation of Israel!” and “Death to the Jews!” our reaction is both to remember times when our people was oppressed and insecure and other times when those threatening to commit genocide against our people carried out the threat. We remember pogroms and exiles. We remember the Holocaust. And when we look at the persecution of minorities in other parts of the region, the consequences of failure to stand up in defense of the Jewish state become readily apparent.
We are both mindsets in the same Jews. We ache because of the suffering of the oppressed and impoverished. Yet, we also understand that were it not for the strength of the Israel Defense Forces and their ability to defend the people of Israel, we, the Jewish people, could once again become oppressed, impoverished, or worse.
The Torah’s warning is not only that in our success, we may become proud and forget that we were slaves. Or fail to acknowledge that it was God, not our own strength, who freed us. It is quite possible that we may also, in our success, forget all the suffering and even miracles that it took for us to acquire our prosperity and security. We are doubly reminded at such times about the tenuous nature of our people’s prosperity in a world of threats against us.
So on this Shabbat we stand with Israel strongly as it defends itself against attacks, but feel compassion for those who are suffering because of its response. And we look upon the strife in Ferguson, Missouri not only with a concern that justice be done in the death of young man, but with concern that the lives of the people in the community will improve.
We will remember that we were slaves in Egypt. Shabbat Shalom.