Monday, September 30, 2019
Rosh HaShanah 5780

We Were Slaves, Now What?

A Rosh HaShanah Morning Sermon by Rabbi Marc L. Disick DD
Interim Rabbi, Har Sinai-Oheb Shalom Congregation, Baltimore, Maryland


There is some mysterious power to standing in the exact places where important personal or historical events occurred. On the personal side, places like my childhood home on Long Island which stirs the memories of grandparents and parents when everyone was far younger, or as a Jew, places like my favorite falafel joint stand in Jerusalem, where in 1977 my family first made an awful mess with Tehina sauce on our very first pilgrimage to Israel. Or as a patriotic if sentimental American, places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia, where by their signature with a quill, men literally risked their lives for the high principle of liberty, or Gettysburg, or Omaha Beach, or Bunker Hill, where we who have never seen war stand to appreciate those who stood for our highest principles with life and limb.

Standing and learning at these places affirms in our minds that the past is part of us right now and that we are more than students in history's classroom, for better and for worse, we live with the consequences of those who built the world in which we find ourselves.

Because we are urban explorers of a sort and quite by accident, my wife Kim and I happened upon one of Charm City's oldest neighborhoods, Fell's Point. It was a stop on the Inner Harbor Water Taxi, and frankly we got off on a whim.

The cobble stones were literally used as ballast, hence Belgian Block, the homes are among Baltimore's oldest and if you listen very carefully with history's ear at the water's edge you can hear the tap, tap, tap of a wooden mallet tap tap tapping long cords of hemp rope soaked in tar, into the seems of wooden ships, one after the next after the next...

Just 12 miles south by southeast from here, at Fell's Point enslaved black people mixed with free blacks, here, just 12 miles from here is where the still enslaved Frederick Douglass acquired his caulker's tools along with the tools of reading and writing, literally tricking free whites into becoming his unsuspecting teachers...

My visit to Fell's Point set me to reading Douglass' 1845 autobiography, which I wish I had read decades ago, and the autobiography set me to read David Blight's recently published Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Douglass...

Which led me to ask myself why I found myself caring so much about and so interested in Frederick Douglass's experience as an enslaved man here in our United States of America.

We Jews are a proud people, teaching our young to retell our story by standing one at a time, right here on this Bimah, we become Bar and Bat Mitzvah by retelling our sacred story, this is why we are proud.

We Jews are a proud people, and remembering where we come from, that at our core as a people is a sacred story of liberation from slavery, we are taught that in each generation, we are to see ourselves as if we ourselves had been slaves in Ancient Egypt, and that we do not take that freedom for granted, and that we have a direct and certain responsibility, not only to assure our own vitality as a people, but that taking on what makes us least comfortable, the plight of the stranger, the awful plight of the stranger, because it is Sacred work, because whether we are seated at our Seder tables in April or gathered to hear the voice of the Shofar here in September, we assert that history is our teacher, that the lessons of our ancient experience are lessons for today, this is why we are proud. Because we have something to be proud of.

Learning about Frederick Douglass experience as an enslaved man led me to read anew texts which come to us from the ancient world about the direct experience of our enslaved Hebrew ancestors in Egypt and it reads like the story of enslaved blacks here in Maryland just three generations ago...

Economic records from Ancient Egypt and Maryland reveal unbearable quotas imposed upon the enslaved, in Egypt for clay bricks, in Maryland for bales of cotton and how rarely quotas were met, and how frequently the rod and whip on the hardest working inflicted agony and scars, just as the whip here in Maryland, were freely used on the hardest working, how owners of the enslaved in Egypt and Maryland saw their human property...dirtier than pigs, he washes himself only once a season, he is wretched through and through...we will beat him as he is stretched out and bound on the ground, we will throw him into the canal until he sinks down, head under water...we will bind his wife before him and put his children in fetters...

Indeed, in learning about our Hebrew ancestors enslaved in Egypt 500 years ago and those enslaved right here in Fell's Point or on the Eastern Shore or until the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation a mere 156 years ago, I could hardly differentiate between the two. But one thing is clear, the act of enslaving others and creating and protecting an economy that depends on it is a cancer on the would of a nation.

But what a seductive cancer it was. Slavery here in these United states created our first millionaires, free labor generated an industry designed to do what industry does: maximize profits, get the most out of workers, and with slavery legal, make sure that violence by overseers flows in one direction only.

Just as enslaved Hebrews made Egypt rich, so too, enslaved Blacks made America rich, in fact, the value of America's slaves far exceeded the value of the entire railroad industry. The American Dream of a home mortgage is rooted in the American nightmare of mortgaging of enslaved people, no less than Thomas Jefferson himself mortgaged 150 enslaved people to build the American icon impressed on every nickel called Monticello. And being industrialists steeped in a legitimate if obscene trade, slave Owners enjoyed trade magazines where owners swapped advice details of slave diets, slave clothing as well as the tone a master should use to maximize performance.

In short, American Slavery created culture of acquiring wealth without work, of growth at all coasts that abused the powerless for its own ends.

American slavery didn't just deny blacks every sort of freedom imaginable, but build white fortunes, at slavery's peak there were more banks in New Orleans than in New York, and from our vantage point looking back we can see that the wealth gap between whites and blacks is a defining and persistent characteristic of our nation...

In health, in education, in social services, from the plantations on the Eastern Shore to the halls of congress, as in ancient Egypt, the suffering of enslaved people becomes backed in while monuments to power grow.

Indeed as our ancestors in Ancient Egypt fell from overseers with whips, here in America, and for much of our history, the bottom gear of economic growth was also legalized torture itself.

Who can believer that a 1729 Maryland law authorizes punishments of enslaved people to include cutting off the right hand, severing the head from the body, dividing it up the rest in four quarters and putting it on display in public places to discourage future violations.

And today in America, and I love my country, America's blacks are 22 times more likely to receive the death penalty. America's Black kids in school are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school for the very same behaviors as whites by huge margins...And America's Black family average wealth is one-tenth, that's right, one-tenth the average wealth of America's white families.

Of course, long after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, we all still very much live in the awful wake of slavery and the attitudes about black people that flow directly from it...my childhood includes more memories than I care to share of those I loved and adored using the most awful words about black people, espousing deeply held racist attitudes about black people and, generally wanting to keep a healthy distance from black people, in our neighborhoods and in the workplace and beyond. Which got me to thinking about what I might be able to do about the whole ugly mess.

So, some months ago, my friend Rabbi Linda Joseph, who is Rabbi Katz's predecessor at the former Har Sinai Congregation, and I had an idea: we would try to organize bias training for Baltimore's Reform Rabbis. It's still a great idea but life got in the way and the idea got shelved.

Then when I hit that point in writing these remarks, you know, the place where I tell you what we all have to do to combat racism and bias in America, the part where I tell you that we all have to do better and be better, the part where I tell you about the special bond between Jews and Blacks, the Jews marched in Selma...you've heard that sermon before and so have I, when I hit that crossroads I realized that I myself had not taken an implicit bias assessment test that would reveal whether or not I held any hidden prejudices, hidden to me that is, held unconsciously and well covered.

I was more than sure that being a progressive Jew inoculated me against implicit bias.

I took the test which took all of ten minutes, I was more than a little self-satisfied in advance of results, I aced this one I thought. It's an online test and my results came up...here must have been some mistake...so, I took the test again and found out that I fell into that category of 70% of white people and 50% of black people, remarkably of the five million people who have taken the test who unconsciously and unknowingly prefer white people to black people in dozens and dozens of ways.

Shocked and embarrassed by my results I was humiliated to learn that despite wishing it were otherwise, I am a man with an unconscious bias that prefers white people.

Rabbi Elissa Sacks-Cohen, who knows something about bias testing, suggested a TED talk led by diversity trainer Verna Myers who suggests, for those of us who didn't score a 1600 on the test, a three part approach for making things right, an approach far easier said than done. First, ask: Who am I afraid of? Who do I move away from? I ought to acknowledge that as Myers said: we have old stuff about superiority that is making for despair and disparity and a devastating devaluing of young black men...What is my part and how can I counter even hidden parts within me that I want to change? Already it's a lot of work.

Second, and in my case, I need to find a way to move toward black men. Myers suggests that I walk toward my discomfort, that I ought to ask who's missing from my circle, that I'm not going to get comfortable without being uncomfortable first...who's missing from my circle...go deeper, closer, further...go against the stereotypes...and third, when I see something, I need to say something by remembering that black people do not have the luxury of shielding their children from racism.

In this journey, I learned that the single most potent way to grow from my unconscious attitude that prefers white people is pretty straight forward. I need to take on a volunteer project that does good int he world that brings me into the orbit of black people, and that ideally I'd build a connection with a black person that brings the two of us together frequently and over time. That if I am serious about decreasing my own hidden bias, Myers is right, I need to move toward black people and not away from them. This from someone who grew up learning that while out and about driving I ought to lock the car door when I see a black man.

So I would like to share with you this evening, that this year I am setting a goal, to find a cause of common concern to work on which puts me in the room with black people, something that will bring us together frequently and over time. That is my Rosh HaShanah resolution.

I think that part of serving my Jewish tribe means wrestling with my own hidden biases. And I believe my God, who creates all of us in a divine masculine and feminine image, wants me to rise beyond my own stuff.

I believe that our job as Jews is to name the worst of what people do to one another and to remedy those ills as best we can. And I believe that sometimes the worst we can do occurs quietly and subtly and that taking that requires that I start with myself.

And I believe that our job as Jews is to understand the agony of others and to stretch toward something sacred.