1619 or 1776? It’s a simple way to describe a contentious debate that’s going on in many school districts and state legislatures. How do you teach American history to students? What are the main forces driving our history as a nation? Is it the enslavement of Africans, from 1619 when the first slave ship landed in Virginia? Or is America’s story simply that “all men are created equal,” as stated in the Declaration of Independence proclaimed in 1776? Or are there other ways to teach our history, instilling pride in our role as a beacon of freedom, but also remembering the stains of our past?
Our part of the Torah, Mishpatim, a legal code, provides some guidance to answer this question. It begins right 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 used in most conservative congregations, the following comment appears: “The legal code begins with the treatment of slaves, even though the Decalogue begins with a reference to the enslavement of Israel in Egypt…[yet]…the general emphasis of the Torah [is] on human freedom and dignity.
Slavery and freedom are central to the history of our people. When I think of the Passover seder describing how we became a free people, I wonder how we remember slavery. There is a section that begins with “Avadim hayinu…we were slaves”. What causes me some confusion is the way we recite these words. At my Seder, and many others, a traditional tune is sung, loudly and cheerfully. Wouldn’t a funeral dirge be more appropriate? Why sing such a sad message so brilliantly?
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Here is a partial answer to this question. One of my professors at the Jewish Theological Seminary pointed out something that might be considered odd in the Bible. When we think of our past, don’t we want to remember the great and noble deeds of our ancestors and their admirable characteristics? Why not remove a story of bondage from our story? Yet the Bible speaks of our slavery in Egypt. Not only that, but the Bible details our journey from Egypt to the promised land of Israel. It is not just an epic of overcoming obstacles with displays of great audacity and courage. It is also the story of a people freed from slavery who constantly rebel against Moses, their leader. They yearn to return to bondage. Moses does not guide them through the desert, he must drag them into the land of Israel. They constantly speak ill of Moses. They don’t like the food offered to them and talk about how wonderful their life was in Egypt. They make a golden calf and worship it. A whole group of people rebels against Moses. God causes the earth to open and swallow them up to end their resistance. We read in detail how slavery causes so many negative effects even after gaining freedom. Future generations need to know this. This entire generation had to die so that the next could live as free people in Israel, but their story is an essential link in our story.
The Bible could also have said that the message of slavery is simple. The world is binary, divided between those who are slaves and those who are masters. Once you are no longer a slave, your best bet is to become a master and enslave others. This is not the lesson of the Bible. Rather, we must remember that we were slaves and therefore seek justice for those who are not entirely free. We read this lesson in over 36 places in the Bible. For example, in the book of Deuteronomy chapter 24, beginning at verse 17, “Do not withhold justice from the stranger or the fatherless, nor take a widow’s coat as collateral.” Remember that you were slaves in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you from there. That’s why I order you to [pursue justice for them].”
I am neither a historian nor an expert in teaching American history, and I know that there is no simple solution to finding the best way to tell the story of our country’s past. Future generations of Americans need to know more about the history of slavery and racism than is taught in schools today. After all, how many of you learned of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921? While writing this article, I had to google it to be sure of the date.
We seem intent on insulting and weaponizing one view of American history rather than another. There are too few rational discussions. The Hagaddah begins the story of our past with the phrase, “Avadim hayinu…we were slaves.” Our part of the Torah also begins by talking about slaves. The Bible is clear; we must remember slavery, study in detail its short and long-term effects, and learn what it means to be a free people. If only American schools could emphasize this lesson.