1619 or 1776? That is a simple way of describing a contentious debate occurring in many school districts and state legislatures. How should students be taught American history? What are the primary forces that propel our story as a nation? Is it the enslavement of Africans, beginning in 1619 when the first slave ship landed in Virginia? Or is the story of America simply that “all men are created equal,” as embodied in the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1776? Or are there other ways to teach our history, installing pride in our role as a beacon of liberty, but also recalling the stains of our past?
Our Torah portion, Mishpatim, a legal code, brings some guidance in answering that question. It begins just after the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. We read in its first verse (Exodus 21:2), “When you acquire a Hebrew slave…” In Etz Hayim, the Hebrew/English Torah that is used in most Conservative congregations, the following comment appears: “The legal code begins with the treatment of slaves, even as the Decalogue begins with a reference to Israel’s enslavement in Egypt…[yet]…The Torah’s overall emphasis [is] on human freedom and dignity.”
Slavery and freedom are at the core of our people’s story. When I think of the Passover seder, describing how we became a free people, I wonder about one way we recall slavery. There is a section that begins, “Avadim hayinu…we were slaves.” What causes me some confusion is how we recite those words. At my Seder, and at many others, a traditional tune is sung, loudly and joyously. Wouldn’t a dirge be more appropriate? Why sing such a sad message with gusto?
Here is a partial answer to that question. One of my teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary pointed out something that could be considered odd in the Bible. When we think of our past, don’t we want to recall the great, noble deeds of our ancestors and their admirable characteristics? Why not remove a story of servitude from our history? Yet the Bible speaks of our slavery in Egypt. Not only that, but the Bible recounts in detail our journey from Egypt to the promised land of Israel. It is not just an epic of overcoming obstacles with displays of great daring and courage. It is also the story of a people having been freed from slavery who consistently rebel against Moses, their leader. They long to return to servitude. Moses doesn’t guide them through the desert, he has to drag them to the land of Israel. They constantly speak ill of Moses. They don’t like the food they are offered and speak of how wonderful their life was in Egypt. They make a Golden Calf and worship it. An entire group of people rebel against Moses. God causes the earth to open up and swallow them to end their resistance. We read in detail how slavery causes so many negative effects even after freedom is gained. Future generations need to know about it. That entire generation had to die out for the next one to be able to live as a free people in Israel, but their story is an essential link in our story.
The Bible also could have said that the message of slavery is simple. The world is binary, divided into those who are slaves and those who are masters. After you are no longer a slave, your best bet is to become a master and enslave others. That is not the lesson of the Bible. Rather it is that we must remember that we were slaves and therefore pursue justice for those who are not fully free. We read that lesson in more than 36 places in the Bible. For example, in the Book of Deuteronomy Chapter 24, starting in verse 17, “Do not deny justice to the foreigner or the fatherless, and do not take a widow’s cloak as security. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you from that place. Therefore I am commanding you to [pursue justice for them].”
I am not an historian nor an expert on the teaching of American history and I know there is no simple solution to find the best way to recount our country’s past. Future generations of Americans must know more about the history of slavery and racism than is taught in schools today. After all, how many of you were taught about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921? Writing this article, I had to look it up in Google to be sure of the date.
We seem to be intent on name calling and weaponizing one view of American history over another. There is too little rational discussion. The Hagaddah begins the story of our past with the phrase “Avadim hayinu…we were slaves.” Our Torah portion also begins by speaking of slaves. The Bible is clear; we need to recall slavery, study its short term and long effects in detail, and learn what it means to be a free people. If only American schools could emphasize that lesson.