Are you a Messenger?

Behold, I am sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ לְפָנֶיךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ וְלַהֲבִיאֲךָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הֲכִנֹתִי (Exodus 23:20, Mishpatim)

During the week I work at a retirement community in Philadelphia. I hang out with seniors, we talk, have fun and sometimes it’s serious as I witness their journey though this last stage of their life.  A few days ago, on Martin Luther King day I met a couple, Carla and Sam, they have been married for 65 years, Sam recently suffered a stroke and I was told that he probably would not live past Friday. I met their son, a family friend and the hospice staff. Sam was laying in a hospital bed in the middle of their tiny one bedroom apartment. I talked to Sam, even held his hand, I’m not sure if he knew I was in the room are not, but for me it was a touching moment especially since I knew on my next visit he would not be with us. Carla was so happy that I the “Rabbi” came to see them and talk with them. She told me how long they had been married, and in 65 years  they never went to bed angry. She was very happy to share this with me and tell me about their lives and I was very humbled by the experience.

Today, I led a Tu Bishvat seder at the same retirement community. It was only the second Tu Bishvat seder I had ever been to and the first one I led. The residents were so excited that I was there and people wanted to know where I was sitting so they could sit next to me. I had also learned that Sam had passed away yesterday and Carla was staying with her son for the rest of the week.

I talk a lot about the assumptions that people make about me, because I’m queer, Jewish and black but I too am guilty of assumptions. If someone would have asked me a year ago, if I would want to work in a Jewish retirement community I would have said no. I would have assumed that demographic would be the least accepting of a black, female rabbi who is also queer, and honestly, quite the opposite is true. They really don’t seem to care, they are just happy to sit down with me, and talk and share their lives. I never knew how happy people could be if you just sat down and really listened. I met a woman in her 90’s, she lost her husband and her only child and really has lost the will to live but after our conversation she left with a smile. Another woman in her 80’s suffered horrible abuse from her daughter, escaped to safety and is now living in this community, she has shared things with me and I know she is only telling me because she feels safe and because I carry the title “Rabbi”

As someone who did not grow up understanding the relationship between a person and their rabbi or their minister, I’m taken back by the tremendous gift; that I get to share in people’s lives. I get to experience the joy and the sadness with people. This gift and these relationships that I am forming with people, the experience is hard to put into words. I keep saying that I am a witness to people’s lives but it’s more than that. After meeting with my spiritual director she said this quote from this weeks Torah portion

הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי שֹׁלֵחַ מַלְאָךְ לְפָנֶיךָ לִשְׁמָרְךָ בַּדָּרֶךְ וְלַהֲבִיאֲךָ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הֲכִנֹתִי

Behold, I am sending a messenger before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared (Exodus 23:20, Mishpatim).

Am I a messenger? Who are the messengers in our lives?

Why Does the Torah Not Abolish Slavery?

In Parshah Mishpatim we transition in Exodus from a narrative, a story of a people, their enslavement, and their journey to freedom to

“now these are the laws that you Moses, shall set before them.”

Why do we care about this? The Israelites didn’t know how to act as a free people after all they had been slaves in Egypt for 400 years. And needed guidance on how to behave as free people. Since the Israelites had left slavery it should not be surprising that the first set of laws mentioned in this parshah are laws about slavery. Exodus 21:2-6 says:

If you buy a Hebrew slave he is to serve you for seven years. But the seventh year, he shall go free.”

What is surprising to me is that the Torah does not abolish slavery. Instead it lists a serious of laws on protecting the slave. The legalized slavery of the Torah only comes to correct some of the pitfalls of slavery. Slavery did exist during this time as an institution, as long as it existed, the Torah gave us laws to protect slaves from abuse and mistreatment. It’s almost as if the Torah could not imagine a world without slavery. Why doesn’t the torah just abolish slavery? Jonathan Sacks says:

“The Torah has already given us an implicit answer. Change is possible in human nature, but it takes time: Time on a vast scale, centuries, even millennia….So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of Gods relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery, but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, to abolish it of their own accord.

Slavery, has existed probably since the beginning of time. Before modern era, slavery was not based on race, it was based on debt, crime or war. In the case of war, when one group of people defeated the other group, they would often enslave the loser and often these were women.

When slavery came to the New World, there was such a demand for labor that slavery became a whole new animal. Slavery in the United States was not based on debt, war, or a crime, it was only based on biological traits, what we now call race. And slavery became inheritable. I mention this because slavery in this country was wrapped in religious conviction. Meaning that on one hand according to Fredrick Douglass’ autobiography the cruelest slave masters and overseers were devout Christians, usually folks that had some kind of a conversion experience or today we call them born again. Further reading of Douglass’ does not imply that he believed christians were evil. He makes a clear distinction between Christianity of America and the Christianity proper. These slave masters used text in the Torah, to justify slavery. On the other hand you have folks like the Quakers, Methodist and the early evangelicals, campaigning to end slavery. These devout christians were also driven by religious conviction, inspired albeit by the narrative of the Exodus story.

As an American, a woman, a Jew and a person of color I feel intimately connected to the history of slavery. Not only the slavery mentioned in this weeks Torah portion but the history of slavery in the United States and the slavery that continues today. These verses in the Torah reflect the time when the Israelites had crossed over the line and moved from slavery into freedom. You were strangers in the land of Egypt, but now you are a free people and never allowed to forget the experience of slavery.

The laws embedded in this week’s portion, and the ones that will follow stress, that we are to cherish freedom, abhor oppression and deal honestly and equitably with both those whom we love and those whom we hate. We are called upon to build a society that promotes individual responsibility and provides legal protections for all its members.