The Courage to Move Forward

James Tissot 
Spies Returning from 

Our parasha for this week is crucial to understanding the Exodus story. A mere two years out of Egypt, the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land. Moses sends 12 spies to reconnoiter the Land. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, return confident that the Israelites can successfully conquer Canaan. The report of the other ten spies, however begin to sow doubt and fear into the minds of the Israelites. They weep and shout and cry that G-d has brought them into the wilderness to die by the sword. Caleb and Joshua exhort the people to be strong, trust in G-d, and enter the land. The people pelt them with stones. They refuse to listen and refuse to enter the land.

It is a turning point, a moment of crisis for the Jewish people, and they fail to answer the call. They lose their faith in G-d, in their leaders, and in themselves. It feels that we too are at a turning point in our country. We can either bravely enter the future, or we can lose our nerve, and, like the Israelites, turn back. It would not be the first time we have turned back as a nation. Today marks a holiday that many of us had never heard of. American Blacks have long acknowledged it as “Juneteenth”. On June 19th, 1865 Union soldiers, led by Major General Gordon Granger, landed at Galveston, Texas with news that the war had ended and that the enslaved were now free.  Only two and a half years earlier, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation  but it had  not freed  the slaves living   in Texas. Now, however, with the surrender of Lee’s Confederate forces and the arrival of the Union army in Texas, forces on the ground were finally strong enough to overcome resistance and enforce Emancipation.

One could say that Juneteenth has some things in common with Passover. Juneteenth is also a celebration of liberation from slavery. Just like Passover, celebrated in ancient times with a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, in the 19th century Juneteenth was celebrated by many former slaves and their descendants with a pilgrimage to Galveston.

The ten years following the Civil War were called “Reconstruction”. It was a way forward – an attempt to introduce civil rights to the recently liberated African Americans. . However, the American people, like the Israelites in our Torah reading this week, lost our nerve, we turned back. We did not have the courage to continue down this path toward freedom for all. Southern States introduced legislation known as “Jim Crow” which legalized discrimination against blacks, enforced segregation and removed economic and political gains made by blacks during Reconstruction. Discrimination also persisted in the North, more subtly, perhaps, but just as damaging to the fabric American life. The Jim Crow era lasted until the 1960’s, when the Civil Rights movement pushed for the abolition of discriminatory legislation in the South.

Martin Luther King famously said that although he may not be privileged to enter the Promised Land, he, like, Moses, could see it. The Promised Land for King wasn’t a place, it was a vision of a time when, as he said, “All of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” King articulated a vision of a future where we would all be liberated – from racism, from antisemitism, from homophobia and sexism, from ageism and ableism.

But we too have not yet entered that Promised Land. With regard to race, post 1960s, we have relegated millions of African Americans to second class citizenship through a criminal justice system which has incarcerated millions of Black citizens. Michelle Alexander’s book, published ten years ago, is called “The New Jim Crow”. It is must reading if you want to understand where we are in the process of liberating American Blacks from being an underclass to assuming their rightful place as equal American citizens.

We have all reawakened these past few weeks to the struggles of Black Americans. As Jews, as descendants of slaves ourselves, we have a special obligation to participate in the ongoing effort to liberate our country from the scourge of racism. We must try to imagine what America looks like to people of color by talking to them, building relationships with them, reading their words, and listening carefully as they describe their experiences.

To that let us say, Amen.