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Va'era:  You Don't Have to Be Carefully Taught - January 15, 2021

We’re heading into MLK weekend, and as usual CBE has an amazing program on tap for this year.  It’s an evening program joining Racial Justice for Black Lives (RJ4BL), Acton Boxborough Students for Equity & Justice (ABSEJ), and Educators Committed to Anti-Racism, Equity and Justice (ECARES).  I’m so grateful for the remarkable work of Sarah Coletti and Sal Lopes — and thrilled to say that our own Lindsay Rosenman is one of the leaders of ECARES.

MLK weekend is a time we turn our attention to fighting hate and bias, to confronting the racism that still plagues our country.

When you’re talking to Jews of a certain age about this subject, invariably someone will reference the classic song from South Pacific — “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.”  You may know the words.  Here’s the last stanza:

You've got to be taught before it's too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You've got to be carefully taught

Now a rabbi critiques Rodgers and Hammerstein at their own peril, but I have to say — I think they’re off the mark here.

Not that Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics didn’t ruffle some Cold War-era feathers.  After a touring production of South Pacific in 1953, some Georgia legislators introduced a bill outlawing any entertainment possessing what they called “an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow.”

One legislator said that "a song justifying interracial marriage was implicitly a threat to the American way of life."

In a time of McCarthyite witch hunts, both the song and the musical were as brave as they were elegantly crafted.  (In response to the controversy, Hammerstein reportedly remarked that  he was surprised at the suggestion that anything kind and decent must necessarily originate in Moscow.)

But is hate something that must be inculcated to children to ensure its perpetuation?  Do you in fact need to be carefully taught to fall prey to racism?

This week’s parashah is Va’era, the second parasha in the book of Exodus.  In it, the first plagues begin to descend upon Egypt, including the plagues of frogs and lice.

I spoke about these texts a couple of years ago on Parsahat Va’era.  I mentioned that the plagues show us that Egypt suffers the consequences of building a society upon hate and injustice.  The language connected to both plagues is interesting.  God threatens to bring frogs not upon the Egyptians bodies, but rather, Anochi nogeif et-kol-gvul’cha ba’tzfarde’im ¬— “I will strike all your borders with frogs.”   Later, the text tells us that, as a result of the frogs, tiv’ash ha-aretz.  “The land stank.” 

Egypt’s sins haven’t just come back to accuse Egyptian people.  They are part of Egyptian geography, frogs appearing at their border.  Their sins have polluted the entire land.

And, again, in the following chapter, the dust that turns into lice falls as a plague al kol-eretz Mitzrayim — upon all the land of Egypt.

Again, not just the people but the land itself is sickened by the sickness in Egyptian society.  When I spoke about this a couple of years ago, I said that it could be compared to pollution.  That, like ozone or sulfur dioxide, hate is in the air we breathe.  Whether or not we produce it.  Since it's in the air, we breathe it in.  It can make us sick.
In a society polluted by racism, or Jew-hatred, or homophobia, or xenophobia, we breathe those things in too.  We all breathe it all in.  And that too can make us sick.

But there’s another plague in this week’s parasha that, unlike the preceding plague, arrives without warning — the sixth plague, the plague of boils.  The plague comes to pass when Moses and Aaron take furnace soot, throw it heavenward in Pharaoh’s presence, and it causes boils — again — al kol-eretz Mitzrayim — upon all the land of Egypt.

But the Ramban, the 13th Century Spanish commentator and kabbalist, explains in language as striking as it is terrifying.  The plague happened because “God infected the air.”

We are currently living through a plague, a plague in which the air itself may be poisonous.  Come within six feet of someone, and who knows what can happen.  But we’re suffering under another plague in this country, a 400-year-old plague — the plague of white supremacy.

We like to think that this plague is in other people.  Not us.  Those people, who have been carefully taught to hate.  But infected air is insidious.  It is an invisible threat.  We don’t have to work hard to see mugshots of people of color, and accept that as reality.  We don’t have to work hard to see that black and brown people live in housing that is less safe and desirable than housing for white folks, and accept that as normal.  We don’t have to work hard to see black and brown inequalty in employment and education and wealth, to see the policing of black and brown children, to see the plague of mass incarceration, and accept that as natural facts of American life.

We don’t have to be carefully taught any of that.  You might say, instead, that we have to be carefully taught to confront these facts of American life.

How do we do that when it’s so easy to accept them?  When it’s easy for the white folks among us to take for granted the privileges we have, and to push away the knowledge that those privileges are unearned?  When our culture has been designed to make it so easy to push away that knowledge?

The chasidish rabbi, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, tells a peculiar story of a kingdom with its own plague, a plague of tainted grain.

The king’s astrologer saw that the rye harvested that year was tainted. Anyone who would eat from it would became insane.
“What can we do?” said the king. “It is not possible to destroy the crop for we do not have enough grain stored to feed the entire population.”

“Perhaps,” said the astrologer, “we should set aside enough rye for ourselves. At least that way we could maintain our sanity.” The king replied, “If everyone behaves one way and we behave differently, we’ll be considered the crazy ones!”

“Rather,” said the king, “I suggest that we too eat from the crop, like everyone else. However, to remind ourselves that we are not normal, we will make a mark on our foreheads. Even if we are insane, whenever we look at each other, we will remember that we are insane!”

The people who consumed the contaminated rye in Rebbe Nachman's parable all thought they were healthy. They did not know they’d gone crazy because all of them were infected.  Hence the need for the mark.

Today, in a nation plagued by white supremacy, we need to put marks on our foreheads.  To look for them in each other.

Whatever the practice, whether study or discussion or activism, we must continually focus on an inner mark against which to measure the lies and distortions of white supremacy.  To teach ourselves the truth — that the bias and inequality we accept as normal should be considered anything but.

It is, to be sure, a truth that must be carefully taught. 
Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782