Be'ha'alotecha 2022: Redemption Through Time

Our tradition has much to say about what it means to be part of liberation over time, and how to work today to fix mistakes of yesterday. In this, how can we use our Torah portion to understand Juneteenth as a national holiday?

In his speech declaring June 19th, the day in 1865 that enslaved African Americans in Texas were told that slavery had ended, a national holiday, President Biden said, “Great nations don’t ignore their most painful moments…The truth is, it’s simply not enough just to commemorate Juneteenth. After all, the emancipation of enslaved Black Americans didn’t mark the end of America’s work to deliver on the promise of equality; it only marked the beginning. To honor the true meaning of Juneteenth, we have to continue toward that promise because we’ve not gotten there yet.”

I see in this statement a powerful idea. We cannot change the past. But we can affect our future in such a way that the past looks different based on how we behave in the present. This week’s Torah portion, according to the rabbis, touches upon this very issue. The canonical Torah commentator Rashi writes: Why do the verses about building the menorah for the Tabernacle follow the chapter about the offerings given by the chieftains? When Aaron, the high priest, saw what the chieftains had done for the dedication, he was upset because neither he nor his tribe had had any part in it. The Holy One said to him: “I swear, your share in the dedication is greater than theirs, for you are the one who lights and tends the lamps.”

Ramban, the medieval Spanish sage, takes this idea and expands upon it,  saying that God’s response to Aaron is, in fact, referring to the lighting of the menorah for the rededication of the Temple thousands of years later, leading to our contemporary celebration of Hannukah. 

Our rabbis are cutting across time and space, taking the infinite viewpoint of God into account. God saw that Aaron’s descendants would continue using this lamp for dedication well after the many other tribes were scattered and lost to the four corners of the Earth. And in this, we find a redemption for Aaron. 

Later in our portion, we have a famous tale of Aaron failing, and remaining unredeemed. One which has often been interpreted to be particularly about discrimination. Miriam and Aaron are gossiping viciously about Moses’ wife being a Cushite. We don’t know for certain what it is that led them to gossip in this way, but it is often interpreted to be about Moses’ wife having been from Cush, contemporary Ethiopia, rather than an Israelite. It could be that this scene, itself, was an ancient form of proto-racism. It remains an unredeemed tale, and this lack of redemption leaves us, today, responsible.

In her book, “On Juneteenth,” Pulitzer Prize winning Harvard historian Annette Gordon-Reed writes about the racial relations in Texas, her home state. She begins by talking about her reaction to hearing that others, outside of Texas, were celebrating Juneteenth. She writes: “The truth is…that I was initially annoyed…when I first heard that others outside of Texas claimed the holiday.”

There is a rabbinic concept ha’na’ah, when and when not to derive benefit from things. There are many prohibitions against deriving benefit from certain objects. Tractate Meilah of the Talmud Is dedicated entirely to the prohibition of deriving benefit from a sanctified object, even and especially unwittingly. Similarly, there is another category, which is tackled in Tractate Avodah Zarah, in which we are forbidden from deriving benefit from idols. 

I believe these two categories are related: Within the rabbinic worldview, there are certain things that exist in certain spheres and must remain in those spheres. Sanctified objects were to be only used in the Temple and by the cohenim, and idols and other forms of forbidden worship were for people other than Jews. I see a parallel here to the issues of appropriation underlying Dr. Gordon-Reed’s annoyance. Deriving benefit, in the mode of appropriation, is using the cultural expression out of its own context - it is ripping it from its sphere, and using it in another sphere for another purpose. This can sometimes end up fully removing it from its original cultural sphere to such a degree that it is irrevocably damaged. 

Dr. Gordon-Reed goes on to say her “proprietary attitude about Juneteenth quickly disappeared.” But, even if this is the case, what are we who are not Black, or Texan, to do with Juneteenth without deriving benefit from it?  How can we commemorate this holiday in a way that keeps it within its proper sphere, while still offering it honor?

We today, some of whom are descendants of Aaron, can consider how we may redeem Aaron’s misstep with regard to Moses’ Cushite wife, just as the Hasmoneans redeemed his misstep with regard to gifts to God. It is not that non-Black folks in America need to ignore Juneteenth, or pretend like it doesn’t exist, but it is that in order to avoid appropriating it for our own benefit, which would tear it from its roots and its natural sphere. We need to treat it as a day to work towards redemption. Rather than simply benefitting from the national day off, we can use it to educate ourselves; to even act to fight against the same sorts of forces that led to slavery in our country in the first place.

The Black trans activist Marsha P. Johnson, famous for her role in LGBTQ rights activism in our city, was honored with a bust erected in her image last year downtown in Christopher Park. On it reads a quote from her, saying, “History isn't something you look back at and say it was inevitable, it happens because people make decisions that are sometimes very impulsive and of the moment, but those moments are cumulative realities."

We non-Black folks can listen to the admonition of Marsha Johnson, and decide that we wish to contribute to a new cumulative reality by seeing Juneteenth as a moment to push for a better world for those who have been discriminated against. This may seem lofty, but in this week’s haftarah reading, we are given a call to arms that teaches us not to balk at difficult tasks. In the book of Zechariah, God speaks to the prophet, saying “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,” meaning that it is not for us to judge what is and isn’t possible, but that we must act to the greatest capacity of our righteousness,  and in that, we will be helped by the Divine spirit. 

May we all, this Juneteenth, act in God’s spirit,working to bring about the promise of liberation; Of freedom, justice, and peace for all people in our land, and to redeem the faults of our ancestors by doing better in our world, today. Shabbat shalom.