‘B’ein chazon, yifra ha’am’, the Book of Proverbs (29:18) tells us; ‘without vision, the people are confused.’
There are no shortage of Biblical verses that speak to the present moment, but this verse, ‘without vision, the people are confused’ (or ‘perish’ in other translations) seems particularly salient. The ‘chozeh’, visionary or ‘seer’ in Biblical parlance, is not just one who sees far, but also one who perceives deeply and knowingly. The power of prophecy is not the ability to determine the course of future events but to stake out the urgency of the present moment.
We see this illustrated in the Joseph cycle which we start reading this Shabbat. What makes Joseph remarkable are not just his predictive powers (life-saving though they are) but his prophetic calling. We may not like Joseph on account of his acerbic truth-telling, but we admire his steadfastness – with regards to his vision and conduct. As he defies the temptations of Potiphar’s wife and as he builds an impressive infrastructure saving the Egyptians from starvation, we realize that these acts are more morally enduring than his dreams of stars, sheaves, fat and lean cows. It is true that Joseph sees far, but more importantly, he sees deeply and amidst the moral confusion of his era, he moves with principled clarity.
Joseph’s charge is our charge, of course. A delegation from Agudas Achim just returned from the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial in Chicago, where we got to enjoy song, Shabbat, celebration, connection and learning. You may remember some of my remarks I offered two years ago when I attended the previous Biennial in Boston. Much of the same praise and impressions apply here: the glory of being in a ‘mega-church’ Shabbat service of 6000 Jews strong. The feel of a ‘global village’ of Jews and the implicit bonds we shared. The energy, the innovation and the vibe. But there was more than that; the Biennial is more than just a good time with 6000 of your best friends. It’s an opportunity for us to be vision-casters. To see far and deep into the heart of the moral demands of our age.
We got to enjoy sessions and plenaries that touch upon these. Some of these address the challenges of community life. One plenary charged congregations to not just improve and innovate their congregational life, but to disrupt it. Other sessions discussed the differing needs across the generations, examined issues of mental health and showcased how to move the needle with community organizing. The Biennial is an opportunity for the institutional body of the Reform movement and its membership to vote on and ratify resolutions. Hence, one of the most powerful resolutions adopted was the ‘Resolution on the Study and Development of Reparations for Slavery and Systemic Racism in the U.S.’ Bold and visionary, this Resolution, in the best Reform traditions of social justice, seeks to explore what the moral and societal obligations are for compensating the African American community, descending from enslaved people. This is not just a matter of monetary compensation but more pressingly, an acknowledgement for the need for restorative justice and a searing call to open our eyes to racial injustice in American society as well as our own communities. Like Joseph, this proposal may not be popular or without controversy, but it is important in its vision and scope. The resolution states:
“Our Jewish texts are clear on the importance of restitution for wrongs committed. The rabbis understood that the victim of a crime was made whole by financial repayment for damages done. Maimonides went one step further, linking the payment of damages to the concept of t’shuvah, noting that repentance must accompany the financial commitment (Mishnah Torah, Hilchot Teshuvah 1.1).
In 2008, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a formal resolution that “apologizes to African Americans on behalf of the people of the United States, for the wrongs committed against them and their ancestors who suffered under slavery and Jim Crow.” Today, there are growing calls for reparations to be made to the descendants of slaves.
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, “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.”
Recent examples of reparations to wronged communities and individuals offer some guidance. Since 1952, the German government has paid more than $70 billion in reparations to more than 800,000 Holocaust survivors. In 1988, the U.S. 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.
The history of slavery and the ills that have succeeded it are collective American issues that have affected the Black community broadly, in addition to those individuals who are direct descendants of slaves. Racial healing can only begin to be achieved when this systemic oppression is recognized and accounted for. As an institution striving to be antiracist, we seek to address the harms of those who came before us, and the injustices that continue to surround us, so that we do what we can to make our institutions, communities, and nation more just for future generations. As Jews, we know from Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, (2:21) that we are not required to finish the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.”
There is no pretending that this can be unpacked in one sermon. On the contrary: after having enjoyed five sessions with Professor Darryl Heller who generously taught our community the checkered and complex history of Black-Jewish relations, this is the embryonic beginning of a conversation that will reach far and deep. There is a lesson of learning here; a process our community has started through Prof. Heller’s lectures. There is also a mussar of power here; a process where we bravely examine our own role in these difficult issues and where we probe our own souls and question our own biases. This is a task that we need to come back to; again and again, with compassion, curiosity and humility, with openheartedness, vulnerability and courage. It seems fitting that we seek this vision to help us navigate the confusion of our current timeframe at a time in our readings where we encounter a human being sold into slavery by his brothers. It also seems fitting that we ask these questions around Hanukkah, where we place our liberation at the center of our experience and are called to bear our light into the world. For by generating light, we can see more clearly. And with the gift of insight, we can walk down the long and arduous path of reckoning and healing, of t’shuvah and reconciliation. Like Joseph and his brothers, this will take many years. And in the words of Proverbs, our vision will guide us.
I look forward to continued conversation and openness of heart in our thoughtful community.