Biblical Slavery, The Ten Spies, and Black Lives Matter

Last week I was studying the portion of the week with my grandsons in Israel. Ironically their portion of the week is currently one week ahead of ours in the diaspora because the last day of Shavuot here was a Saturday, but for them it was the day after Shavuot so we are temporarily out of synch. A metaphor for Israeli- Diaspora relations but a subject for a different blog.

The portion described the story of the 12 spies sent by Moses to scout the land of Canaan and to report back on what they saw.

The spies came back and surprise, surprise, a Jewish committee brought back 2 conflicting reports. All agreed the land was beautiful, “flowing with milk and honey”. They even brought back samples including a grape cluster hanging on a pole carried by two men, but then the reports took off in opposite directions. The majority reported that the land was fortified and full of strong inhabitants. There were giants in the land and compared to them the Israelites were like grasshoppers in their own eyes, and would surely be so in the giants’ eyes.

The minority report consisting of Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim, encouraged the people to go forward. Caleb said, “We should go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it”.

The majority report resonated with the people who panicked, so much so that they turned on Moses wishing they had stayed and died in Egypt or at least died in the desert. They thought it was better to go back to slavery in Egypt then be slaughtered trying to conquer their homeland.

I asked the grandkids the one question that used to haunt me when I was younger and trying to understand these people. How could a group of slaves witness the destruction of Egypt, the affliction of the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and as if that wasn’t enough, hear the words of God at Mount Sinai, and not believe that God would bring them to the promised land?

We often struggle with belief in God and wish for a sign, some sense of the presence of God. I saw a bumper sticker today that paraphrased said, first we believe it, then we perceive it, so that eventually we receive it.

Some people of faith feel that they have experienced the presence of God but most of us have questions, especially at times of suffering like this pandemic. But the children of Israel were given God on a silver platter. They did not have to believe in God, they saw His hand and heard His voice, yet they folded like a cheap deck of cards.

The kids had no answer, so I gave them one. The children of Israel suffered from a debilitating disease. They were slaves who even though were now free, suffered deeply from slave mentality. For generations they had not made an independent decision. For generations no one in the family had tasted freedom, independence of thought or deed. For generations they were told what to do, what to eat, and had never experienced consequences from decision making because they had not made any decisions on their own. They may well have suffered what 3 millennia later would be called Stockholm Syndrome. Now faced with a decision that had consequences they fled back to that which was horrible for them but comfortable to them. They would rather go back and be the slaves that they knew then face the uncertainties of making a decision.

Around the time of our lesson, I was watching one of the news stations that has become the muzak of my life, when a leader in the African American community was asked an interesting question. Blacks were not the only minority group to be persecuted in America. Virtually every immigrant group was given a hard time when they first came here but within a generation they had successfully integrated into American lives. Why after 401 years from the arrival of the first African slaves to Virginia, were large parts of the African American community still suffering?

His answer was so simple, and yet to me so unexpected. He pointed out that all other immigrants chose to come here usually in pursuit of a better life. Only Blacks were brought here and against their will.

I thought if that was not enough of a reason, then we should remember that for 244 years black “immigrants” were slaves. Then after the Emancipation Proclamation they experienced a brief taste of freedom and participatory involvement in their communities during reconstruction, although over 35 black officials were killed by the Ku Klux Klan and those were the “good years”. Then they experienced 95 years of Jim Crow discrimination.

In short, the black community was no different than the Israelites who according to one tradition were also in Egypt for 400 years, with much of that time as slaves. If the Children of Israel had slave mentality how much more so the Black community?

How would your life have mutated if you were discriminated against for four centuries? What would your life be like if for half of your people’s stay in this country you were owned by someone else, or the person you loved and the children you had, belonged to someone else and could be taken away from you and sold at the will of another?

What would be the impact on you if you were told that it was the natural order of God and genetics that you were inferior to others or where you were bred for strength and raised with a sense of inferiority?

How different would your life be if your neighborhoods were cut apart to allow highways, where home equity loans were not given, where your public schools were underfunded and your education inferior and your access to higher education restricted or denied outright?

How do you think you would have turned out if it was always open season for police to go after you with as little provocation as walking, jogging , or driving while being …….?

So, what was God’s answer to the slave mentality of the Israelites?

It was to understand that they could not be rehabilitated. Rather a new generation needed to arise born in the freedom of the desert and not tainted by slavery but rather born free to assume control of their lives and their choices.

That literally is not possible here, but it is a guide.

We in white America have to invest time and money to raise all of our black brothers and sisters into a world of independence, devoid of discrimination and recrimination. We need to understand that we do this not just because it is right but because it is for our benefit as well. Increased financial investment in all levels of education, as well as providing more social and mental health providers, neighborhood improvements, and access to fair priced home loans is not charity but an investment in making our country whole. It is not only that they need our help, but we need a country in which everyone feels free and safe, or in the end none of us will be free or safe.

We as a country grow stronger when more people are reliant on each other; where we do not see our fellow citizens as the other and they don’t see us as the other, rather we are equal partners in the project of building America. If it takes a while to develop that new free and proud generation then that is the investment needed to build the stronger safer more prosperous country for all of us.
Someone may ask, if all this is needed why do we see so many successful African Americans in so many walks of life including one who was President of the United States of America? Isn’t this a meritocracy where achievers are rewarded, and slackers are not?

I remind you that even the generation of the slaves created a Moses, a Caleb, and a Joshua. There have always been the exceptions, the outliers, but societal change is not based on them but on the masses of the generation. It is time to recognize there is a generation that needs to be helped so that we can all go in and claim our Promised Land.

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Rabbi Paul Plotkin

Rabbi Paul Plotkin

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I am a retired Conservative Rabbi. I was a pulpit Rabbi for 40 years. I supervise a chain of kosher Delis called Ben's .