Because we were once slaves, Michael Zimmerman explains, we can feel the suffering of other oppressed groups without having experienced it directly. Seeking justice does not need to be rewarded, as it is a privilege and a right to campaign on behalf of others.
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פֶּן־תֹּאכַ֖ל וְשָׂבָ֑עְתָּ וּבָתִּ֥ים טוֹבִ֛ים תִּבְנֶ֖ה וְיָשָֽׁבְתָּ׃וּבְקָֽרְךָ֤ וְצֹֽאנְךָ֙ יִרְבְּיֻ֔ן וְכֶ֥סֶף וְזָהָ֖ב יִרְבֶּה־לָּ֑ךְ וְכֹ֥ל אֲשֶׁר־לְךָ֖ יִרְבֶּֽה׃וְרָ֖ם לְבָבֶ֑ךָ וְשָֽׁכַחְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ הַמּוֹצִיאֲךָ֛ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֥ית עֲבָדִֽים׃הַמּוֹלִ֨יכֲךָ֜ בַּמִּדְבָּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּדֹ֣ל וְהַנּוֹרָ֗א נָחָ֤שׁ ׀ שָׂרָף֙ וְעַקְרָ֔ב וְצִמָּא֖וֹן אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֵֽין־מָ֑יִם הַמּוֹצִ֤יאלְךָ֙ מַ֔יִם מִצּ֖וּר הַֽחַלָּמִֽישׁ׃הַמַּֽאֲכִ֨לְךָ֥ מָן֙ בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֥ר לֹא־יָדְע֖וּן אֲבֹתֶ֑יךָ לְמַ֣עַן עַנֹּֽתְךָ֗ וּלְמַ֙עַן֙ נַסֹּתֶ֔ךָ לְהֵיטִֽבְךָ֖בְּאַחֲרִיתֶֽךָ׃וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ בִּלְבָבֶ֑ךָ כֹּחִי֙ וְעֹ֣צֶם יָדִ֔י עָ֥שָׂה לִ֖י אֶת־הַחַ֥יִל הַזֶּֽה׃וְזָֽכַרְתָּ֙ אֶת־יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֔יךָ כִּ֣י ה֗וּא הַנֹּתֵ֥ן לְךָ֛ כֹּ֖חַ לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת חָ֑יִל לְמַ֨עַן הָקִ֧ים אֶת־בְּרִית֛וֹ אֲשֶׁר־נִשְׁבַּ֥ע לַאֲבֹתֶ֖יךָ כַּיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃
When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in, and your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold have increased, and everything you own has prospered, beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget YHVH your God—who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage,…who fed you in the wilderness with manna…in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end—and you say to yourselves, “My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.” Remember that it is YHVH your God who gives you the power to get wealth…
(Deuteronomy 8:12-18, new JPS translation)
This passage explains why, in the words of Milton Himmelfarb, “Jews earn like Episcopalians, and vote like Puerto Ricans.” We feel no shame that through God’s blessings, including the blessings of intelligence, skill, motivation, and good fortune, many of live a comfortable life in America. This, however, does not make us superior to other individuals and groups who have been less fortunate, for, as the Torah continually reminds us, we too were once slaves in the land of Egypt. Since we do not put ourselves on the pedestal of class or noblesse oblige, we contribute to the needs of others through tzedakah (obligation out of justice), not out of pity (which creates a power differential between giver and receiver). When we fully understand this, we are free from the guilt, shame, and labeling sometimes associated with “identity politics”: I do not need to pardon myself or hold back my words because I am not African-American or Hispanic or LGBT; I carry the scars of bondage in the Land of Egypt, so I know your anguish as my own. Your struggle, my struggle, and the global struggle are inseparable.
Finally, the recognition that my accomplishments and gains do not stem from “my own power and the might of my own hand” leads to humility. I am not here to lay boost my ego through any social justice initiative, and I’m not looking for credit or acknowledgement. When our efforts are successful, when we raise a couple of sparks of justice in the world, the result is its own reward, acknowledged with prayers of gratitude to the Power that made it all possible. And when an effort is not successful, we can look back to 40 years in the desert and recognize that setbacks occur “in order to test you by hardships only to benefit you in the end.”
Rabbi Michael Zimmerman (2003) serves Congregation Kehillat Israel in Lansing, Michigan. He is the founder and convener of the Greater Lansing Chapter of the Network of Spiritual Progressives.