Image: “The Pharaoh Tutankhamun destroying his enemies. A pharaoh in a chariot, smashing many small military figures. Painting on wood. Egyptian Museum of Cairo. Public Domain.
In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he personally left Egypt, as it is stated: “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8) Pesachim 116b
This very famous passage of Talmud is quoted in the Passover Haggadah. On the face of it, it commands us to do the impossible: to travel to Egypt, sometime about the 13th century BCE, so that we can personally experience the Exodus. I’ve been thinking about it ever since we began to read the Exodus story in Parashat Shemot a few weeks ago.
In every generation there is an Egypt – actually, a series of Egypts. The Jewish project, the path of Torah, is a constant effort to leave the confines of Mitzrayim (the Biblical name for Egypt, which also means “a narrow place.” Whether it is a geographical location, a moment in history, or a state of mind, each generation has the task of leaving the narrow place for something more expansive, more risky, more free.
What narrow places bind us today? I suggest that one of them here in the United States is the narrow place of institutional racism. I used to think that if I was “not a racist” then I’d done my job. If I did not use the n-word, if I did not make people with brown skins use the back door or a special bathroom, if I did not talk disparagingly about how “they” had certain behaviors, etc. I was “not a racist” and I was doing OK.
I have come to understand that while that kind of racist person is a big problem, there is a much worse problem. That is the pervasive institutional racism that sees to it that people with brown skins do not enjoy the securities and opportunities that white people enjoy. I can walk into a store, or a hotel, or a synagogue and assume that I will be welcome as long as I behave myself. This is not true for a person who has darker skin. They will be questioned. They will be scrutinized. They will not be given the benefit of the doubt. The people who do this will always have justifications ready for their behavior, but the consistency with which that behavior persists suggests that the justifications are a smoke screen.
Institutional racism is in the layout of our cities and it is embedded in our economy. From the 1940’s until the Federal Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968 African Americans were shut out of in the greatest wealth-building period in history, because they did not have the same access to mortgages and real estate as whites. You may say that was long ago, but the differences in income and personal wealth persist to this day. African Americans were hit harder by the 2008 Great Recession because they were more vulnerable than whites.
I could go on and on, talking about the institutional racism in our justice system, in education, in employment, in health care. I used to be a skeptic about these things. I used to think that the real problem was poverty. But I have become convinced from my reading that racism undergirds most of the serious issues facing the United States, poverty included, with the possible exception of climate change.
You might protest, “But rabbi, I’m white and I’m poor!” I do not deny that there are poor whites, and suffering whites. But I am more and more convinced that if we dealt with the institutional racism against Americans with brown skins, many things for whites would also improve. President John F. Kennedy was fond of saying that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Truly equitable courts, truly equitable banks, truly equitable education institutions would not have leeway to mistreat anyone.
If we are to leave this Egypt, we must leave not only the racists behind, we must find a way to leave institutional racism. We must listen to black voices with the same respect we give white ones. We must take people at their word. We must give the benefit of the doubt. We must do things that do not come easily when we have grown up in this narrow place, this Egypt, in which inequalities seem “normal.”
This year, as I read the Torah portions of the Exodus story, Shemot, Va’era, Bo, and B’shalach, I pledge to challenge myself to leave this Egypt. I pledge to listen to voices of people with color with respect. I pledge not to interrupt either with my voice or my thoughts. I pledge to do my part to educate other whites about this issue. I pledge to speak up when I see something wrong, and to pay attention and respond when others speak up.
It’s a long road out of Egypt. It begins with my first step.