What is the essential teaching of Pesach, which we begin celebrating on Shabbat? Is it the celebration of God remembering His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob? Is Pesach a celebration of the founding and creation of the Israelite nation, later to become the Jewish nation?
Is Pesach a celebration of freedom from slavery and oppression? Or is Pesach the celebration of the change of seasons from winter to spring?
Pesach is all of these things and more. Yet this year, I cannot help but be drawn to the theme of being free from slavery and oppression. This year is the 400th anniversary of the introduction of slavery into North America. In August 1619, 20 Africans who had been forced to cross the Atlantic Ocean arrived in the Virginia colony on board a Dutch ship.
Some people are raising the question whether reparations should be given to descendants of African slaves in America. As it happens, the Torah does take up the issue of reparations in the Exodus story.
When God first approaches Moses at the burning bush, God makes this promise to Moses: “I will make this people graceful in the eyes of the Egypt; when you go out, you will not go empty handed. Each woman will ask her neighbor and the sojourner in her house ornaments of silver and ornaments of gold and robes, and you shall put them on your sons and on your daughters and you shall despoil Egypt.”
Indeed, when the Israelites leave Egypt, they despoil Egypt by asking for silver and gold vessels and getting them because God made them graceful in the eyes of the Egyptians. It is possible that deep down the Egyptians felt they owed the Israelites something for their many years of enslaved service.
Moreover, we learn in Deuteronomy that when a person releases his or her indentured servant, that servant should not be released empty handed. Clearly, the events of the Exodus became the basis of this law.
What is our debt to AfricanAmericans? Do we owe them anything? Even if we do, how can we repay them now many generations later? Given the Torah’s clear teaching that reparations for slavery is a moral and legal obligation, we should consider a way of fulfilling “this mitzvah” even at this late date.
One way would be a thorough rebuilding of our country’s broken criminal justice system. There is ample evidence that since emancipation, African Americans have suffered grievously and unfairly in their encounters with police, courts, judges, prisons and with probation and parole officers.
Although African Americans make up only 13 percent of the population, they consist of 60 to 70 percent of the prison population. They regularly get arrested and convicted of crimes that are usually ignored when committed by white
people. When imprisoned, they often receive extraordinary long sentences. The racism in prisons is brutal. When released from prison, returning citizens receive hardly any assistance in finding employment and housing.
African Americans have suffered terribly from our criminal justice system. For many it has become another enslavement. We could begin to repay our debt to them by rebuilding the criminal justice system in the United States.
Let us remember how our ancestors were treated when they left Egypt by being graceful to the descendants of slaves.
Rabbi Charles Feinberg is the executive director of Interfaith Action for Human Rights.