Juneteenth: Zakhor!

On this Juneteenth, I share with you a d’var torah that I shared with Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, NJ three months ago. I was interviewing for the position of rabbi there on Shabbat Zakhor, the sabbath when we read a portion from the Torah instructing us to remember how the Amalekites attacked the Israelites after they were freed from slavery in Egypt.

But first I’ll share this message from Rabbi Sandra Lawson, Director of Racial Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Reconstructing Judaism: Juneteenth in Our Synagogues and Communites. Rabbi Sandra played a significant role in the trip that I describe in my teaching, d’var torah (below).

I also highly recommend that you listen to Albert José Jones, founder of the country’s first scuba club for Black divers, tell his story on NPR’s Story Corps.

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Shabbat Zakhor  (March 22, 2024)

When I was growing up, we had this word printed in bold blue letters on white buttons that we wore on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Zakhor, remember as an imperative verb, was the watchword of the Holocaust: Remember the 6 million! 

According to A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, edited by Francis Brown, S.R. Driver and C.A. Briggs—and known affectionately by Bible students everywhere as BDB—the word zakhor, from root zayinkafresh,  appears throughout the Hebrew bible in various contexts with different meanings. Its primary meaning is “to remember, recall, call to mind, usually as affecting present feeling, thought, or action: to remember past experiences.” 

We are instructed in three of the five books of Torah—Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy—to remember we were slaves in Egypt, to remember God redeemed us and freed us from bondage, to retell the story. The early rabbis codify the retelling of this story on Passover.

When we recall and retell these stories, the details or facts may change. That is not what’s important. What matters is we see ourselves in the story of our people.

Bible scholar Everett Fox, commenting on the Book of Exodus, reminds us, “Human memory is always selective. We remember what we wish to remember, giving weight to particular emotions, sometimes over and above the facts. The same thing appears to be true of group memory. What a people remembers of substance is not nearly as important as how they process their experience.”

This processing of experiences—remembering as affecting our present actions—is what I wish to discuss this evening.

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Three weeks ago I visited the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama with a group of Reconstructionist rabbis, and their spouses and partners. I’m still processing the experience of walking through the museum, making meaning of what I saw and heard and felt, writing and speaking about it with friends. 

In short, for me it was like being in Yad Vashem or the U.S. Holocaust Museum.

You enter the main hall by crossing the ocean, a long hallway with sculptures of men, women and children who were kidnapped, chained and packed like cargo onto ships, thousands of whom died in the passage, whose bones lay scattered along the ocean floor. You exit through a huge room devoted to stories of the disproportionate numbers of African Americans imprisoned in our country.

This description is completely inadequate.

I walked through that passage twice. I spent a long time standing before the sculpture, Exode, at the end. Later, I wrote a poem about the experience and the sculpture.

The poem is completely inadequate.

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Our guides, Rabbis Sandra Lawson and Benjamin Barnett, encouraged us to “measure our distance” from the history and experiences of African Americans—slavery, discrimination, segregation and racial violence, including lynching—and to think about how we, as Jewish Americans, may have benefited from our country’s historic and ongoing discrimination against African Americans.

Our mission, upon returning home, was to find ways to take action to make a difference in our communities.

At the lynching memorial, as it is informally known, we walked in silence under the enormous concrete slabs that hang down like stalactites growing in a cave, each monument is engraved with the name of the county and state in the U.S., the names of the victims—when they are documented or the word “unknown” if they aren’t—and the dates of thousands of lynchings. 

In nearly every documented case, the perpetrators of the violence were never punished and this terror and trauma led 6 million Blacks in the south to flee their homes for cities in the northeast, midwest and west coast. This is known as The Great Migration.  

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Two days ago I attended a candlelight vigil hosted by the Cobb County Remembrance Coalition, held in Temple Kol Emeth’s sanctuary, to remember Mr. John Bailey, a victim of racial terror lynching in Cobb County, on the anniversary of his death, March 20, 1900. The coalition has worked with the EJI to uncover the details of John Bailey’s life and murder by a mob of 100 masked men, some armed with pistols.

Their mission is to educate the community about this terrible period in our history.

Keynote speaker, Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady, said: “We all know the famous saying of philosopher George Santayana,those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,’ and, I would add, to relive it.”

At the same moment we were lighting candles to honor the memory of John Bailey, many vigils of a different sort were taking place all across Georgia. People of faith raised their voices in prayer and protest that William James Pye, an intellectually disabled man, was being led to his death, execution by lethal injection at the Georgia Diagnostic Prison. Georgia is the only state in the U.S. that requires people with intellectual disabilities to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are intellectually disabled. Represented by poor legal counsel in his original trial, refused repeatedly by the state to have his sentence commuted to life in prison, William James Pye represents our country’s need for a reckoning with our history.

Just two weeks earlier, I stood under the monument bearing John Bailey’s name in Montgomery, Alabama, tilted my head back, held my phone at an awkward angle to photograph to record the date of his death. When we gathered in the garden to recite Mourner’s Kaddish, I whispered his name.

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I share these stories of my experience of remembering our country’s past on this Shabbat Zakhor to illustrate how short the distance is between our past and present. Mr. Broady addressed a crowd of 150 people, diverse in age, race and religion, noting how we have taken important steps forward to address injustice, racism and antisemitism in our community. Then he held up a plastic bag containing a neo-Nazi flyer left on his driveway, one of the hundreds left on the driveways of homes all over Georgia last summer, and said, “I keep this with me to remind me that we still have a lot of work to do.”

The work of zakhor is to build coalitions, to gather together in Beloved Community, to combat hatred, to lift up the experiences of our people, by remembering and retelling the stories of our past in order to create a better future. 

This is the holy work of tikkun olam, repairing the world, that we’re reminded on Shabbat Zakhor we must do, together.

May God bless the work of our hands.