Consensus Statement on Racial Equity... On the Road to Redemption

As our journey through the Torah continues, this week we find ourselves at the beginning of Sefer Shemot, down in Egypt, enslaved with our Israelite ancestors. The story of the Exodus has always been not only a foundational narrative in its own right, but also a lens through which we view the world. All oppressive conditions in which we might find ourselves -- from depression to pandemic, patriarchy to injustice -- can be labeled "Egypt" in this schema; the move out from underneath each of these can be thought of as an "Exodus."

As our journey through the Torah continues, this week we find ourselves at the beginning of Sefer Shemot, down in Egypt, enslaved with our Israelite ancestors. The story of the Exodus has always been not only a foundational narrative in its own right, but also a lens through which we view the world. All oppressive conditions in which we might find ourselves -- from depression to pandemic, patriarchy to injustice -- can be labeled "Egypt" in this schema; the move out from underneath each of these can be thought of as an "Exodus."

Commentators have long noted that the road towards the Israelites' redemption was long, and it began not with God or Moses, but with the Israelites themselves. Exodus 2:23 reads: "A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God."

On this verse, Rabbenu Bachya, one of the most prominent Biblical exegetes of medieval Spain, comments:

“Even though the moment had arrived, they weren’t worthy of redemption yet. However, once they all cried out in unison from their labor, their prayers were accepted… This is to teach you that the prayer of a person is only complete when one cries out from the pain and stress that are contained within one’s heart. This type of prayer is more accepted by and rises up before the Blessed One... And it's also possible to say that this text offers a hint about the redemption that is to come, which is that it hangs on both repentance and prayer."

This is a powerful teaching, in multiple ways. First, Rabbenu Bachya says that "becoming worthy of redemption" necessitates stopping and naming the problem; also, the Israelites' cries must rise up to God as a collective voice. In addition, he claims that redemption hangs on repentance too... meaning that behavioral change is a necessary part of the equation.

Today, we are living through a great awakening in America, as we are finally beginning to see clearly just how we have inherited a legacy of centuries of injustice and racism. Before we can liberate our society from this oppressive burden and move forward from this "Egypt," there is a path we must walk... the same one that Rabbenu Bachya lays out so clearly in his commentary on this week's parasha.

The first step is crying out with a collective voice. As a member organization of Seattle's JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Council), Kavana is proud to have been part of the process of developing and passing a consensus statement, entitled Racial Equity and the Jewish Community. By definition, this work cannot have been simple. Like the cry of the Israelites, it emerges from a place of discomfort and distress; the words of this statement are an acknowledgment that at present, all is not right in the world, that we reside in a world unredeemed.

In addition, the local JCRC reflects much of the broad diversity of the Seattle Jewish community. As the JCRC writes, "While [the council] agreed on the importance of addressing racial equity, finding consensus on the specifics took time. This statement is the product of months of work during which the members of the newly formed JCRC Council learned, shared, deliberated, and grew in understanding." I am so very grateful to Robin Schachter for representing the Kavana community on the JCRC, and I invite you to read her words below to learn more about the process. The JCRC's painstaking efforts to help the Seattle Jewish community speak with a unified, collective voice are an important first step towards redemption.

As hard as it was to draft and pass this consensus statement, the next step will be even more challenging. Rabbenu Bachya speaks of repentance (teshuva) as a second key ingredient, a complement to prayer. Teshuva implies a real change of heart that leads to behavioral changes... in other words, not just an aspirational statement, but true action.

Again, I invite you to continue reading Robin's summary below, and to consider how you (personally) and we (collectively) can work towards the consensus statement's implementation. Only together will we have the power to cry out with a collective voice and to demonstrate that we have undergone a process of teshuva, really beginning to make change and implementing our vision for equity and justice. Taken together, our ability to speak collectively and also to take action will be the keys to unlocking redemption and repairing our world.

Onward and upward!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum