Sign In Forgot Password

Yom Kippur 2020/5781

09/28/2020 12:55:22 PM


Rabbi Howard L. Jaffe

"A Stolen Beam"

Perhaps the most foundational text of this day comes from the Mishnah, the early third century code of Jewish law on which all subsequent Jewish legal tradition is built: "There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other" (Mishnah Yoma 8:9). We can spend this whole day fasting, reviewing our behavior over the past year, thinking about every way we have failed or wronged others, and yet, unless we do something about it, unless we set about to reconcile with those we have wronged, this day is for naught. Transgressions between us and God, we are taught, can be atoned on this day by prayer, fasting if we are able, and yes, asking God’s forgiveness. But transgressions between us and other human beings? Nope. Those require us, at the very least, to sincerely seek to try to right the wrongs we have wrought, and address the ways we have failed each other.


The whole premise of teshuvah is that there will always be tears in the fabric of human relations, and even in whole societies. We need a way of getting right with each other so that relationships can be repaired, so that we can move forward, and not remain in a place of torn fabric.


There are times, though, when doing teshuvah is so complicated, or so burdensome, that the consequences may keep us from doing so.


There is a powerful discussion in the Talmud (Gittin 55a), the layer of Jewish text that follows on the Mishnah, which discusses what must be done when a house, in fact, the Talmud speaks of a palace, is built on the foundation of a stolen beam.

Shammai argues: we must tear down the house to retrieve the beam and return it to its rightful owner.

Hillel, however, argues that the house should be allowed to stand… But the thief must pay for the beam, based on its full value as the foundation of the home.

Hillel and Shammai regularly disagree. But what they disagree about here is what must be done, not whether or not something must be done. They both insist that something be done to right this wrong.


In theory, a building can stand on the foundation of a stolen beam. But both Hillel and Shammai recognize how wrong that would be, and that action has to be taken to correct the wrong and the injustice.

And it is time that we recognize that America is built on the foundation of a stolen beam. Or more accurately, on the foundation of stolen lives.


It is way past time that we acknowledge that until we do the necessary teshuvah, our society will continue to suffer from the wound that slavery first opened, and continues to fester to this day.

The process of self-examination that these high holidays demand from us is known as cheshbon hanefesh, the “accounting of the soul,” a process by which we turn inward to assess who we are, and how we might change for the better. Itis time to do cheshbon hanefesh, a full accounting not only of our own individual souls, but our collective, societal soul regarding that sin in particular, the building of this nation on a stolen beam. It is well past time. Hundreds of years past time. But as we know, it is only in recent months that the awareness of the legacy of slavery, and the too often unrecognized institutional racism that pervades American society has sufficiently caught our attention to be part of the national conversation.


“There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other.” There can be no atonement without teshuvah. And there can be no teshuvah without cheshbon hanefesh.

Our tradition lays out five steps for real teshuvah: recognition of our misdeeds, confession and acknowledgment, remorse, desisting from repeating the misdeed, and restitution.


Yes, restitution.


But how do you make restitution for a stolen beam on which a house was built? How do you make restitution for hundreds of thousands of stolen lives, whose progeny grew to millions of enslaved souls, upon whom a country was built? How do you make restitution for the millions of lives lost in the process of transporting stolen human beings from one continent to another over a period of hundreds of years?


Giving them freedom, and especially freedom without equality, is clearly not sufficient.


Freedom alone was not sufficient for us when we left Egypt.


We took reparations for our slave labor.


We read in the Exodus story (Ex. 11:2), just before the 10th plague, and our hasty departure from Egypt, God tells Moses, “Speak, please, in the ears of the people, that they ask, each man of his neighbor, and each woman of her neighbor, silver items and gold items.” And then, in the next chapter (Ex. 12:35-36), we read that “they asked of the Egyptians silver items and gold items, and clothing.  And YHWH gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they gave them what they asked; so they emptied out the Egyptians.”


Reparations for 430 years of Egyptian slavery was not seen as inappropriate, vindictive, or dishonest. It was a required component of liberation. It is at the heart of our slavery story.


And that is not, of course, the only instance in Jewish history where we have demanded, and received, reparations.


I had opportunity to talk about reparations with both of my in-laws, of blessed memory. Survivors of the Holocaust, they received a small stipend every month from Germany, along with hundreds of thousands of other survivors. While there are few Holocaust survivors still alive, that practice continues. In total, Germany has paid material claims of approximately $80 billion since 1952, to individual Holocaust survivors and their surviving spouses, and of no small significance, directly to the state of Israel.


Those funds became a decisive part of Israel’s income, comprising, at its high point, 87.5% of Israel’s income in 1956. In the end, those funds may very well have made the difference between Israel surviving its first decade and not.


But that was never the point.


The point was teshuvah.


For individuals who received German reparations, the material impact was much smaller, and for only a small number, who had otherwise extremely limited means, did those reparations account for a meaningful percentage of their income. Because again, no amount of money could possibly compensate for the loss of life, the deprivation, and the incalculable suffering that the Nazis wrought. In fact, a new Hebrew word had to be created for the equivalent of the word reparations – shilumim -- which arise from the same root as the word for payments, tashlumim - since the word tashlumim suggests the appropriate exchange of funds for an item or service.  Reparations are not payments, and can never be construed to be compensation. The word reparations itself comes from the word repair, and at least one dictionary defines it as “the making of amends for wrong or injury done.“


It was never about compensation. It was about teshuvah.


“There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other.”


And so…certainly…there is no atonement for transgressions of one nation against another, or one group of people against another, until the perpetrator has reconciled with the one who was wronged.


Ask almost any Holocaust survivor, and they will tell you that the money itself was not especially meaningful. What was meaningful was the recognition of the wrong, the willingness of the Germans to own what they, as a nation, had perpetrated.

When West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer addressed this issue in September,1951, he spoke some of the most powerful words of teshuvah in history:

“... unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the German people, calling for moral and material indemnity ... The Federal Government are prepared, jointly with representatives of Jewry and the State of Israel ... to bring about a solution of the material indemnity problem, thus easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering.”

Adenauer understood that these reparations were not merely blood money. They were a necessary, yet insufficient condition to begin to reconcile what Germany had done.


Seven years ago, on these high holidays, I spoke about my first visit to Germany, which had taken place just weeks earlier. And I shared, in part, about the extraordinary extent to which, at least, Berlin in 2013 was actively self-conscious about its history. In Berlin in particular, it is almost impossible to walk any meaningful distance without coming across one or more memorials to the victims of the Shoah or to the Shroah itself. It is hard to imagine they provide comfort to those whose lives were lost or otherwise destroyed by the Nazis, but again, that is not the point.


The point is teshuvah. The point is recognizing and owning the history, thus, as Adenauer said, "easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering."


With little likelihood that any member of the German parliament would have used this language, they came to terms with the fact that their nation, at that point in time, had been built on the foundation of a stolen beam.  


There are, of course, significant differences between the Shoah and Slavery. The principles around reparations for each, however, are startlingly parallel and congruent.

No one has made a more eloquent case for reparations than Ta-Nehisi Coates, in his groundbreaking 2014 essay in the Atlantic titled “The Case for Reparations.” It lays out the case in ways that make it difficult to challenge or ignore. Sadly, as we know, Coates and many other Black voices have only been catapulted into the mainstream over the past five months in ways that are unprecedented thanks, in large part, to a 10 minute video recorded by a 17-year-old on her phone on a street corner in Minneapolis. The image was just too powerful, too undeniable, for us to turn away or rationalize it away.  The death of George Floyd at the hands, no, at the knee of officer Derek Chauvin sparked an awareness in American society of the breathtaking disproportion that police kill Black men and women, 2 ½ to 3 times more often than white Americans. There are many others, of course, and many others who died simply for having the wrong color skin… and we must say their names …at least some of them: Trayvon Martin, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor…and so many more. Their deaths are beyond tragic, and the symptom of an unaddressed, deep pathology in American society: a systematic racism that has been largely ignored and disregarded since well before the Battle of Lexington.

Even after slavery ended, policies and practices of anti-Black housing, transportation, criminal justice and education have robbed Black Americans of opportunities to build wealth.

We know how that has played out. Unsurprisingly, Black Americans have historically been grossly underrepresented in the highest echelons of government and in the world of business.  Blacks are incarcerated at a rate six times that of whites. Blacks in America have a life expectancy three and a half years shorter than Whites.

To those who say that Black Americans ought to be able just to pull themselves up by their bootstraps as so many others have done, I would quote the landmark 2018 study which clearly demonstrates how a lack of financial capital has led to the astonishing wealth gap that persists: In America today, white high school dropouts have more wealth than Black college graduates ( ). According to federal data from 2017, a white family’s median wealth is 9.7 times higher than that of a Black family’s ( ) .


Is it any wonder, then, that during this pandemic, African Americans continue to get infected and die from COVID-19 at rates more than one and a half times their share of the population?


Our nation was built on the foundation of a stolen beam. And the ones from whom it was stolen are still suffering.


If reparations are the making of amends for wrong or injury done, it is long past time for our nation to do some serious teshuvah and figure out how we can begin, as Adenauer said, to acknowledge the “... unspeakable crimes”, that call for “moral and material indemnity ….easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering.”


My call today is not for a specific program of reparations. It is, again, for a true national cheshbon hanefesh, a genuine accounting of our national soul, or at least the beginning of such a process. Calculating the cost of reparations is an inexact science and figures vary dramatically, as do ideas for forms the reparations should take and who should be eligible. There is precedent that is often overlooked: The United States itself made reparations to Japanese-Americans and their descendants who had been incarcerated in concentration camps here in this country during World War II. Many consider the financial amount, $20,000, to have been a token, but it also came with a formal apology to each of the tens of thousands of survivors, for whom that was at least as important as the financial payment. I wonder if anyone who witnessed the ceremony will forget the image of United States Attorney General Dick Thornburgh presenting checks to nine elderly attendees, dropping to his knees to reach those in wheelchairs.


Along with the financial restitution and the apology, a fund was established to educate the public about the incarceration, of which too few still know enough about today. Perhaps that is a model to at least  consider…and frankly, the fact that it took more than 40 years for those reparations to materialize remains a stain on the fabric of our history, but a smaller stain than was there before. But imagine what this country would look like if we had begun to deal with our responsibility for Slavery after only 40 years!


And if there is a statute of limitations on how long a society should be responsible for its behaviors, noting that Black people were enslaved in this country longer than they have been free, that statute has surely not run out.


Like many others, I was, in the words of New York Times columnist David Brooks, “a slow convert to the cause.” I have to admit that until I visited the national Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., I did not truly understand how integral slavery was to the development of the American and the global economy or just how brutal the slave trade was. And like so many others, the events of the last four months in particular have awakened my conscience in ways that nothing before has.


It is time for us to engage, in the very least, in a serious conversation about what reparations might look like. And we need to do it within the Jewish community, as well as in the larger public square.


There are many options on the table. Not all of them center on direct financial reparations. But no serious proposal suggests that we tear down the institutions and structures that allow our nation to operate - no one proposes, as Shammai did, that we tear apart the house in order to return the beam. Doing so benefits no one, and only destroys that which has the potential to impact everyone for the good.


And while the argument is a moral one, it turns out that there is a practical side to racial justice: Just a few days ago, Citigroup, who announced a $1 billion-plus initiative to close the racial wealth gap, simultaneously came out with a report that at least $16 trillion has been erased from U.S. GDP over the last two decades due to discrimination - and found that if the racial divide were addressed today, $5 trillion could be added to the economy over the next five years.


Ironically, in the most recent survey data I could find, only 29% of Americans support the notion of reparations - the exact percentage of support amongst Germans in 1951 when Adenauer first proposed German reparations. The German Parliament did the right thing not because it was popular, but for their own standing in the world, and because it was right. 


Can we do less?


It is time for us to do teshuvah. It is time for us, as a nation, to reconcile with those who still experience the deprivations of slavery and its far-reaching legacy.


And we, in the Jewish community, have a particular obligation to play a role in furthering the conversation. As descendants of slaves ourselves, we have a particular responsibility to be part of this process.


Living through a time when we are limited in what we can do in some ways, we are, paradoxically, free to do more in other ways. We have more time, and the means, to educate ourselves. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to begin with the Ta-Nehisi Coates article, and of course, any one of the many excellent books about racial justice. There is link to a list of such books on the homepage of our website. And yes, even if we cannot easily visit with one another in person, we can still engage in conversation, through a screen or just over the phone, or yes, with some physical distance, even in person and not shy away from this topic. Put it on me. Start off with “My rabbi said…”.


Having a more organized response to the call for racial justice has been on our Temple Isaiah agenda for months, though admittedly, due in large measure to the time in which we are finding ourselves, it has not gotten as much traction as we would have hoped. Some members of our congregation have begun to engage in these conversations, and it is time for us to start figuring out next steps. We are committed to doing so, and if you are interested in being part of the team that carries this work forward within our Isaiah family, I invite you to be in touch with Rabbi Maimin so that she can know of your interest. This will take a little while… We want to be thoughtful and deliberate, especially in this unusual time, so that we are not merely having conversations and congratulating ourselves for doing so. There is real work to be done, and we need to be part of the great wave that will make this work real.


Our country was built on a stolen beam. And it is beyond time that we figure out how to make reparations for that blatant act of injustice.


It is time for us, as well, to “bring about a solution of the material indemnity problem, thus easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering.”

“There is no atonement for transgressions of one human being against another until that person has reconciled with the other.”

Have you ever looked closely at the word atonement? If you break out the syllables differently, you can see its original root, from middle English…at-one-ment.   This Yom Kippur, this day of atonement, it is time for us to commit to doing what we must to reconcile with those who have been wronged so that we can, finally, be at one with God and with ourselves.


And so then, perhaps only then, can this new year be a year of blessing.


And if you are so inclined, I invite you to say ,


Watch the video here.

Tue, June 6 2023 17 Sivan 5783