How Can We Repair?": Start by Discussing Reparations at Your Seder

Yesterday was a historic day in our country, with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation by the Senate. She will, of course, be the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. I am thrilled at the prospect of such a talented and qualified judge joining our nation's highest court and want to celebrate this moment; however, a piece of me is also experiencing a more complicated swirl of emotions, including relief that things fell out this way (because it wasn't always evident to me that they would), anger and bitterness about her treatment by some senators during her confirmation hearings, and a deep sadness that after so many years, decades and centuries of struggle, our society still has so very much work to do.

Yesterday was a historic day in our country, with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson's confirmation by the Senate. She will, of course, be the first black woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. I am thrilled at the prospect of such a talented and qualified judge joining our nation's highest court and want to celebrate this moment; however, a piece of me is also experiencing a more complicated swirl of emotions, including relief that things fell out this way (because it wasn't always evident to me that they would), anger and bitterness about her treatment by some senators during her confirmation hearings, and a deep sadness that after so many years, decades and centuries of struggle, our society still has so very much work to do.

Last year when we read this week's Torah portion, Metzora, my newsletter opening was entitled "It's Time to Dismantle the House, and I invite you to click here to read (or re-read) it if that feels helpful. In it, I wrote about systemic racism as a plague on the house of our American society, and how there comes a point at which we are left with no choice but to dismantle the fundamentally flawed house in order to rebuild.

This year, I want to build on that idea. This Shabbat, in addition to reading Parashat Metzora, we will also read a special haftarah (selection from Prophets) in honor of the fact that this is the Shabbat preceding Passover. In this special haftarah for Shabbat haGadol, the prophet Malachi tells the people Israel that they've gone off the rails:

"From the very days of your fathers you have turned away from My laws and have not observed them. Turn back to Me, and I will turn back to you—said the LORD of Hosts." (Malachi 3:7)

But then comes the kicker... as the nation poses a most challenging question, asking: "ba-meh nashuv," “How shall we turn back?” The people of Israel, it seems, understands and acknowledges that there is indeed a problem. Even better, they want to be part of the solution, to do teshuva. But, they ask, how can they do so? What is the actual path towards effecting repair? When we dismantle, how do we begin to build back from a new, more just foundation?

The haftarah's question -- "ba-meh nashuv" -- is so very relevant to our moment, too. We are living through a time of great change, filled with both progress and set-backs all at once. As much as we are trying to move our society forward, racism hasn't disappeared. If anything, over the last handful of years, it seems to have crawled out from under the rug such that we can see, more clearly and in sharper relief than ever, all the ways in which it is built into the foundation and walls of the house in which we reside. Ba-meh nashuv - how do we turn back? How can we possibly repair the damages of the past in order to be ready to move forward? Or -- in Jewish vocabulary (and connected to the word "nashuv") -- how might we embark on a collective teshuva process?

For Kavana, conversations about how to address both the injustices of the past and the structural inequalities that remain to this day have percolated up in many different settings over recent years. One notion our community keeps coming back to -- grounded significantly in our understanding of teshuva -- is that reparations could play a key role in moving our society towards a vision of liberation and redemption.

This year, a small group of Kavana partners and staff teamed up to create new resources to help you guide your seder conversation towards a discussion of reparations:

  • The seder insert, “What? Gold and Silver on the Seder Plate?," is designed to be used during the maggid (telling) section of the seder, right after the Ten Plagues are recited. It includes a very brief text to read aloud: Exodus 12:35-36, the verses in which the Israelites are preparing to leave Egypt and pause to collect gold and other riches from their Egyptian neighbors. On the back side of this insert, you'll also find a chance to act out this part of the story in a short role-play exercise, followed by a set of contemporary questions to stimulate rich discussion about reparations from a number of angles.
  • A companion webpage: www.kavana.org/reparations. There, we’ve collected links to articles, videos, podcasts and other resources we have found useful, in the hopes these can deepen your discussion at the seder and provide opportunities for follow-up learning. Seder leaders, especially, are encouraged to take a look in advance of the seder, and everyone is welcome to share these resources widely.

I want to express deep gratitude to Kavana partners Charles Mayer, Jennifer Nemhauser, and Matthew Offenbacher, together with Rabbi Jay LeVine, for all the hard work they have poured into this project over recent months. The five of us have enjoyed the process of working together to create these resources, and we are very excited to hear how this discussion goes for you at your Passover Seder, what additional resources you know of on these topics, and what suggestions you have for next year! Whatever your Passover seder plans this year, please do add an item of  gold or silver to your seder plate, give this discussion a try, and then email us your feedback and ideas. We genuinely look forward to continuing this conversation with you!

May this Shabbat HaGadol help us to ask ourselves the question "ba-meh nashuv" ("how can we repair"), and may the upcoming Passover holiday bring us one step closer to liberation and redemption for all!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum