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Incremental Steps

08/13/2020 11:49:08 AM


As we hunkered down for Zoom Passover seders in April, I don’t think many of us really thought that this pandemic could be the reality for High Holidays half a year away. Since then, I think people have more sobering expectations for how prolonged this virus could last. If you would have told me in April that some schools might still be virtual at the end of summer, I don’t think I would have been ready to hear it. With a little bit of denial and a lot of optimism, I wouldn’t have taken your suggestion seriously. However, if you told me today that this situation will go into 2021, I’d now be ready to listen.

Effective leaders know that this is how people behave. If you are trying to lead people and bring them to a certain goal, then you must do so incrementally and push them appropriately. The moment you push them too hard is the moment they stop listening to you and feel like you’re asking too much.

It is in this vein that I read the laws of slavery in Parshat Re’eh. We learn in this week’s portion that when a person owns a Hebrew slave, then that slave should serve you for six years, and in the seventh year should be set free (Deuteronomy 15:12). This passage evokes some questions from me. Why does the Torah sanction slavery? Shouldn’t the former-slave Israelites know how awful slavery is? In fact, a few verses later, the Torah mentions this very point; that the Israelites were once slaves themselves and must follow the decrees of God who had set them free!

To redeem this text, I read it not as a blanket sanction for slavery for all time, but rather a qualified approach that the Israelites might get behind, even though it is abhorrent. With different sensibilities from that of our modern world, the ancient Israelites lived in a world where slavery was a norm. Thus, perhaps if the Torah outlawed slavery, the command would have fallen on deaf ears. Yet, even though the Torah seemingly condones slavery, it interestingly limits such slavery and moves the pendulum in the slaves’ favor. “When you set him free, you should not release him empty handed. You shall grand him from your flock, and from your threshing floor, and from your winepress, that the lord your God has blessed you, you should give him.” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14). And you should do this, because the same God who gave you these blessings is the same one who took you out of the land of Egypt (Deuteronomy 15:15). In such a view, perhaps the Torah is moving the Israelites incrementally to a world where owning others, and controlling their will, is wrong. Which in fact is the trajectory that Jewish law and history has taken since then.

Being open to new ideas and being ready to change is not easy. We have old habits and familiar attitudes that serve as foundations for our lives. But learning how to better listen to others who are trying to lead us in a more righteous and moral direction allows for a society to make larger incremental steps towards the way the world ought to be. Who knows what attitudes future generations will look back and wonder why we weren’t ready to adopt such viewpoints today. Yet already in our lifetimes, we know we have work to do when it comes to race, gender, and religion.  It is my prayer that this congregation can be leaders, taking the necessary steps to move society forward, towards a future that ought to be.

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, September 30 2023 15 Tishrei 5784