Rosh Hashanah Day 1, 5781
The Curse of Ham
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova!
You know I usually try to begin the first sermon with a joke – but it’s a little awkward. It’s just that, like every athlete, politician, musician or late night comic – we rabbis play off the crowd. I get my energy from you. And now there is no reaction. No affirmation that what I chose was, indeed, a good joke.
And then there’s the fact that this year has hardly been a laughing matter. The Hebrew name for 5781, the year we have just entered, says it all.
Tav shin peh alef. If you toss around the letters you get the word ASHPOT - a garbage heap. Literally in the Bible, a pile of dung. The gate right adjacent to the Western Wall is called Sha’ar ha-Ashpot. The Dung Gate. It’s where they carried out the… residue of all those animals brought up to the temple for sacrifices.
So even the name of the year tells us that we are experiencing a dung-show of biblical proportions. This year has been a dung-ster fire.
OK – so here goes the joke. A rabbi, priest and minister walked into a bar.
And it was closed.
So how are we feeling today? Fearful? Sad? Angry? Hopeful? Bereft?
Yes, all that. We’re going to talk about all that over the next ten days.
I’ve been leading services on the High Holidays since I was 17. But never anything like this. I look out and no one is here. I miss you more than you could ever imagine. Everything has been thrown out of whack. Everything is gone. Lord and Taylor. Fairway. United Housewrecking. Brooks Brothers. Mookie Betts and Tom Brady. In Boston, even Cheers closed. Now, no one knows my name.
This is me!
Free floating anxiety.
On the other hand, I sense you are out there. I know you’re out there.
And yet – and yet – despite our bewilderment, never have we also been so anchored. So laser focused. It’s a paradox. Even as our world has been turned upside down, we have regained our moral bearings. Even as we have been tossed around like yesterday’s dung, all the while we’ve been purifying ourselves, body and soul, like the High Priest preparing for Yom Kippur.
So, as disoriented as we’ve been, in some ways we’ve also been stabilized.
Ask me today’s date and I’ll hesitate. But ask me what happened on May 25 for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and I’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. At any moment, we feel like we are floating from virtual background to virtual background on Zoom, but on May 25, at 7:57, our moral compass positions us all adjacent to a car just across the street from Cup Foods in Minneapolis, the spot where George Floyd’s life was snuffed out – when everything changed.
Later assessments indicate it might have taken over nine minutes from start to finish, and he was probably dead for the last two or three minutes, the most difficult to watch. But however long it took for that one precious life to be extinguished - it was the most impactful footage of a murder since the Zapruder film. And it was, and for all time will remain, 8 minutes and 46 seconds.
It is now part of history. And with all the perplexity of this Covid period – those 526 seconds stand out because they lifted a cloud that has been suffocating this country for 401 years.
In fact, our world was already off kilter long before someone ate a bat on the other side of the world last year and set off a pandemic. But we were too busy to notice. Once the lockdown set in, however, we had time to notice. We had time to focus on what is important in life – lots of things – and I’ll get to some of the others over the next ten days – but perhaps first and foremost, we had time to focus on those 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and we had time to understand that George Floyd’s life mattered. And we began to regain our moral bearings as Americans, and to finally come to fully understand the enormity of the sins of our fathers and mothers – which, as it turns out, are ours as well. ALL OF OURS. Because we own it. We are responsible.
We began to see the racism in ourselves. We began to look around and see so many people suffering, people of all colors and creeds, and we cried out with a sense of recognition that we never had before, seeing injustice with a clarity that we never had – we cried out that all human beings deserve to live lives of dignity, including and especially those who have been so cruelly denied it.
This is the year America began to finally understand what it’s like to live in someone else’s skin. And it was this year for a reason. Nikole Hannah Jones wrote in the New York Times:
Or, as basketball’s Chris Webber put it in response to the Jacob Blake shooting, echoing the sage Hillel, “If not now, when?”
This past year’s Book of Life had far too many tragic endings. Anyone who has a heart – anyone who is not an unfeeling monster - has felt that heart break so many times this year that there are no tears left. Over the next ten days, our mission will be to try to figure out how to go on. How to move forward with confidence, how to live at a time of plague when there is so much fear, how to live at a time of isolation, when so many are trying to divide us.
On this Rosh Hashanah, let us begin that journey with a focus specifically on why Black Lives Matter – and why that movement matters to Jews.
On Rosh Hashanah it is determined, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed – and on all days we shall know their names: (Based on "Unetane Tokef for Black Lives")
Who shall die while jogging (#AmaudArbery)
Who shall die while holding a cellphone (#StephonClark)
Who shall die while decorating for a party (#ClaudeReese)
Who shall die while leaving a party (#JordanEdwards)
Who shall die while sleeping (#AiyanaJones)
Who shall die after a no knock ambush of her apartment and receiving no medical attention for 20 minutes. (#Breonna Taylor)
Who shall die by asphyxiation and have it covered up for months? (#Daniel Prude)
Who shall die while worshipping the Lord (#Charleston9)
Who shall die for a traffic violation (#SandraBland)
Who shall die while coming from the store (#MikeBrown and #TrayvonMartin)
Who shall die while shopping at Walmart (#JohnCrawford)
Who shall die while cashing a check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood)
Who shall die while reading a book in their own car (#KeithScott)
Who shall be shot in the back while entering their car (#Jacob Blake)
Who shall die while running away (#WalterScott)
Who shall die while asking a question (#RandyEvans)
Who shall die while begging for their life, (#EricGarner)
Who shall die while begging for their breath (#GeorgeFloyd)
But teshuvah, prayer and a complete reckoning can avert the severe decree.
Back in July I received emails from two congregants on the very same day.
One asked me whether “Black Lives Matter” is anti-Semitic and how, if so, could Jews feel that they are doing the right thing to support it.
And the other was from someone who is considering naming her expected child “Canaan,” and would that be OK?
This sermon will address both questions simultaneously. Because if you want to get to the root of racism, you have to begin with the Bible – and if you want to begin the process of undoing racism and becoming anti-racists, we have to find a way to reverse the Curse of Canaan.
This mom-to-be really liked the name Canaan – after all, Oprah had named a child Canaan, because, as she put it, saying, “Canaan means new land, new life.”
But our expectant mom knew something more. She had been reading some of the same books a lot of us have been reading lately, about the origins of racism and some verses from Genesis:
You see, after leaving the ark with his sons Shem, Ham and Yafet, Noah plants a vineyard, a symbol of the survivor’s instinct – the drive to live on, which eventually leads to a remarkable discovery: wine. Noah gets drunk and goes a little crazy. The text then continues: “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and went outside and told his two brethren.” His brothers then cover their father with a garment and look askance so as not to shame him, another instinctive and quintessentially human endeavor, to protect the dignity of a loved one, affirming their worth as a human being.
Noah wakes up, sees what’s happened, goes ballistic and for some inexplicable reason, curses Ham’s son, Canaan.
וַיֹּאמֶר, אָרוּר כְּנָעַן: עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים, יִהְיֶה לְאֶחָיו.
And he said: Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren.
Noah then blesses his two other sons and says that Canaan will be the servant of Shem.
This has come to be called the “Curse of Ham,” which since the middle ages has been used to justify the enslavement of Black Africans, since Ham was said to have inhabited that continent. In 1578, English travel writer George Best wrote that it was God’s will that Ham’s son and “all his posteritie after him should be so blacke and loathesome that it might be a spectacle of disobedience to all the worlde.”
In the popular imagination, blackness itself became the curse. Slavery was the byproduct. In subsequent centuries, the curse quickly gained the sanction of the church.
As Ibram X Kendi writes in his recent books detailing the history of racism, the Bible was used as a pretext to justify the horrible things that were already happening. Exploitation came first, the biblical foundation for racist ideology came second. Kendi writes, “The same Bible that taught me that all humans descended from the first pair also argued for immutable human difference, the result of a divine curse.”
We Jews know what it is like to experience this kind of prejudice. Racism has been directed against us using Biblical sources too.. Though I must emphasize, that the degree of systemic racism that Blacks face in this country is far more ingrained here even than anti-Semitism, which is found mostly on the fringes. Jews cannot possibly begin to understand what it is like to send children out the door under constant fear of their not coming home, of their being arrested or worse. Although I suppose the members of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh might have something to say about that. There still is no comparison.
Exactly two months from tomorrow, Americans will celebrate the 400th anniversary of a journey that ended in Plymouth, Massachusetts. There is some debate as to whether any Jews were on the Mayflower, but I doubt it. Nor, for that matter, would any Jews have arrived in Point Comfort, Virginia on the first slave ship, just one year earlier, in 1619.
We did not arrive on any of those boats, because we were quite busy at the time. In 1615, King Louis 13th kicked us out of France. In 1618 in Grodno, Jews were accused of Blood Libel and nearly expelled. The Blood Libel stated that Jews consume the blood of Christian children in a satanic pre-Passover ritual. This Big Lie was the anti-Semitic precursor to the conspiracy theory known as Q-Anon. The only difference between classic Blood Libel and Q-Anon is that the current conspiracists have exchanged matzah for pizza. This canard would go on to inspire anti-Jewish riots across Poland that year and in 1619, persecution of Jews intensified in Persia too. (see Timeline of Anti-Semitism)
So we were busy while those two ships made their historic journeys that to this day define different visions of American History.
I once saw the great John Lewis (of blessed memory) speak to a group of college students. The shared suffering of the Civil Rights era rang out to me when Lewis concluded his lecture by saying, “We may have come over in different ships, but now we’re all in the same boat.”
Lewis was right. We are all on the same boat.
Here are a couple of Jewish things you need to know about the Curses of Ham and Canaan.
First, even in the Jewish sources that see the curse in terms of skin color, no value judgment is made here as to which color is superior. One midrash (Pirke D’Rabi Eliezer 24:1) states that Noah blessed Shem by making him “dark but comely.” Ham was blessed too – not cursed – by being “dark like the raven.” Shem was given an inheritance of the earth and Ham the coast and the sea. And the other brother, Yafet? God made Yafet and his sons entirely white and they got the fields and the desert as their inheritance.
In this midrash, interestingly, Jews are not the white ones. We’re considered descendants of Shem – Semites, the “dark but comely ones.”
The rabbis, who were Middle Eastern, after all, were dark toned and proud of it.
In a famous passage in Numbers, Moses’s siblings gossip about Moses and his relationship with a “Cushite woman."
Cushite is generally translated as of African origin – literally an Ethiopian, though here it seems to include his wife Tziporah, who was Midianite and not an Ethiopian. So let’s eavesdrop on a conversation between two of the sages.
“R. Eliezer the son of R. Yossi Hagalili asks: "Dad, Why is Moses’ wife called "Tzipporah"?
To which R. Yosso replies, “Because if you break it down, the name means "Tzfu ur'uh" ("Look and see") how beautiful this woman is! "The Cushite (Ethiopian) woman"
“But Dad, was she really an Ethiopian? Wasn't she a Midianite? Why is she called a "Cushite"?
Rabbi Yossi haGalili responds, “Just as a Cushite is exceptional in his skin color, so Tzipporah was exceptional in her beauty — more so than all the women.”
So you can see here that the rabbinic sages were literally the originators of the expression, “Black is Beautiful.”
But this is the main point. From a Jewish perspective, the Curse of Ham / Canaan was not about skin color at all. As the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra reminds us, who were the Canaanites. They were the nation that Israel had to conquer in order to possess the land. They had to subjugate them. Not enslave them. Just take over their country.
That’s why the Canaanites are cursed in Genesis: to pave the way, so that centuries later, the Israelites could conquer the land. The curse of Canaan was a geo-political narrative that set the scene for what was to come later – and not just regarding the Canaanites, but also their descendants, the Hittites and the Amorites (but having nothing to do with today’s Palestinians). It had nothing to do with blackness or racial inferiority of any sort. It was about biblical conquest – not race.
So if anyone asks you about the Curse of Ham, it’s not a Jewish thing. While there is a thread of chauvinism in Jewish sources that is troublesome, the prevailing rabbinical view is to love your neighbor and the rabbis did not like the institution of slavery.
And I’ll tell you what else is a very Jewish thing: Non-violent protest. It’s emphasized numerous times in rabbinic literature. Extremist violence is wrong – on all sides – but non-violent protest is not. There’s even a medieval practice of interrupting the service as a form of protest - called Ikuv Hatefilah (delaying the prayers). If a person felt that an injustice had been perpetrated on them by specific people or by the community, they could interrupt the service before the Barechu prayer or before the Torah service “until justice is done them.” Urgent protest is seen as superseding prayer – for in fact, as Heschel and King affirmed, protest itself is a form of “praying with our feet.”
And where does that leave us as Jews in the wake of this George Floyd moment that changed everything? It leaves us here:
Yes, Black Lives Matter – and it matters that Jews unequivocally share in this moment of activism. We can’t simply be “not racist” - we need to be anti-racist. Some people don’t like that slogan Black Lives Matter, retorting, “All lives matter.” And it’s true. Every human life is of infinite value.
But we need to start with the group that has been victimized systemically for centuries, the group with the knee on the neck. What has long been implied now needs to be stated clearly – When we say ‘Black Lives Matter,” what we are really saying is, “Black Lives Matter, TOO!”
The first principle of rabbinical interpretation is called a Kal Vachomer. And this is a classic Kal Vachomer – where the "lesser" proves the greater. Black lives should not be considered of lesser value, but they unfortunately have been.
“IF…. Black lives matter, lives that have been routinely discarded like yesterday’s Ashpot from the Temple…IF Black lives really do matter, so do those groups who have not been so abused.” It's a strange logic, but, in a sad way, it works.
It starts with Black lives, because they have been most oppressed for the longest. But it doesn’t end there. It’s about changing the way people think about human dignity. Once we correct the record, once we say that Black lives are not worth just 3/5 the value of a white life, then we can move on to confirming the equal value of all lives. Once we own up to the 4,743 lynchings that have taken place in this country, the stench of Jim Crow, the murders, the mass incarceration, and the systemic racism that is still rendering my neighbors’ lives less valuable than mine even with regard to Covid, we will then come to recognize that all lives have dignity, and that matters. (Note that during the Holocaust, a Jewish life was deemed to not be worth even one cent!)
That’s why Jews should support Black Lives Matter - to show how we can be and must be firm allies to our neighbors in righting the wrongs of history. And now is the precisely the time to do it.
It’s about shared suffering and empathy. It’s about John Lewis, whose speech to Emory graduates rang through the Capitol Rotunda while his body lay in state, when he recalled the three young people who were murdered by the Klan in that fateful summer in Mississippi, James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two white Jews and a non-Jewish African American. And they did not die in Vietnam, Lewis said, or in Eastern Europe or Central America; but right here, in America, simply trying to help all our citizens to participate in the democratic process.
They died in America!
And last January, when anti-Semitic murders shocked the nation and our sanctuary was filled with clergy and every major politician in the state – it seems so long ago, but it was this year - the African American community was there for us. They understood that to be anti-racist is to also be anti-anti-Semitic.
And so I ask you? After what we saw happen to George Floyd and others, how could we not be anything but completely supportive – and mobilized?
And let me be clear that I for one have great admiration for the police here in Stamford, who have been so helpful to the Jewish community during the challenging times post Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. I’m a proud member of the police – here’s my chaplain’s badge.
The issue of systemic racism goes far beyond one segment of society, though police reforms are absolutely necessary.
I’m also aware that some Black leaders don’t like Jews. And it goes both ways, I must add – and we must be the bridge. You can have your Lewis Farrakhans and Meir Kahanes and I’ll take John Lewis - and Elijah Cummings, whose Youth Program in Baltimore has sent over 200 teens to Israel over the past twenty years.
And I’ll take Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Martin Luther King – and the 18th century Talmudist Pinchas Eliyahu Horowitz, who expressed a prevailing Jewish view in this passage from his Sefer Ha-Berit (II:13):
Source: Hartman Summer Institute, 2020: “For in the Image of God was Adam Created” Jewish Attitudes to the ‘Other’: Xenophobic Bias vs. Expansive Inclusion in the Judaic Tradition, Chaim Seidler-Feller
The Jewish Council of Public Affairs (JCPA) represents nearly 150 Jewish community relations councils, agencies and denominations. This is no radical group. It is as mainstream as it gets. Here’s what they say about Black Lives Matter and concerns raised about anti-Semitism and Israel.
There are, invariably, some Israel critics, even anti-Semites, among those leading or supporting the fight for racial justice in this country, as there are among any comparably large group of people. But this fact should not preclude participation in in the fight for equality in the U.S. JCPA believes that to counter anti-Semitism and to live out our Jewish values of equity and justice for all, that the Jewish community should not abandon the largest movement for racial justice in decades because of fear of a position...taken by a small faction also participating in that fight. Only by participating in BLM we can effectively share our concerns about anti-Semitism, the existing call to end military aid to Israel, or any other issues that get thrown in the mix going forward. These positions do not represent the entire movement, only a small group.
I will share the link to the JCPA’s full statement in the text of this sermon, which will be posted on www.joshuahammerman.com. With regard to anti-Semitism, I personally have already shared some concerns with our local partners, regarding some statements made by an NAACP leader in Philadelphia, and that leader has since been removed; and our local leaders responded with all the right words of reassurance, as good friends do. Guy Fortt, the local NAACP leader, who spoke to our congregation this past summer, wrote this to me in response to my concern:
“The Stamford Branch of the NAACP finds it unacceptable that the Philadelphia chapter had leadership that engaged with antisemitic content and perpetuated racist sentiment. Our chapter is independent from the Pennsylvania State Conference but chooses to serve as an example for all local units and will continue to lead from the front. It is a violation of our principles to perpetuate discrimination. It is our mission to stand for equality and respect of all persons regardless of their background. You can count on us to be consistent on this front."
Not only has that Philadelphia leader been removed, but the entire Philadelphia chapter’s leadership voted to dissolve itself in the wake of this stain.
Our new TBE social justice committee has been doing some remarkable work strengthening our partnership with the Black community, which made it possible for me to address this concern. We are responding to the call of this historic moment.
There are those who want to divide us – and they are primarily neither Black nor Jewish, nor, I should add, Jews of color, as ethnic classification is never binary. There are those who want to lure Jews into distrusting Blacks and other minorities. There are those who try to push the victim button that has infected Jews with fear and chauvinism.
Don’t fall for it.
Don’t let your elderly relatives fall for it, they who are the most susceptible to emotional manipulation.. Share this sermon with them, wherever they live. With my compliments!
Hello Bubbe and Zayde! Good Yontiff! You look great, Kenahora! How’s the weather?
Now listen to me. The most Jewish thing we can do is embrace this moment of coming together and righting the wrongs of the past. Don’t listen to the haters.
And don’t fall for conspiracy theories like this farkakteh Q-Anon! It’s Blood Libel with pizza. And it’s anti-Semitic.
There are those who say that we should not be talking about these matters at shul on the High Holidays. To that my response is, “If not now, when?” And “If not here, where?”
I take my moral signals from those Jews who risked all to fight against apartheid in South Africa, including the renowned activist Helen Suzman and her brother in law Arthur Suzman, a Jewish community leader, who said in the early 1960s:
“Let us cease to ask merely, ‘Is it wise (to speak out) and begin to ask as well, “Is it just? Our task is to arouse an awareness among our own community and to create a consensus that race relations are not exclusively a matter of politics but concern human values.”
It is our duty to speak out. And Nelson Mandela recognized that our own experience of prejudice places Jews in a unique position of moral power.
We have faced anti-Semitism from all sides, from the left and from the right. But there is no moral equivalence here. We know that the primary danger comes not from the Black community or Black Lives Matter, but from those who killed our people at prayer in Pittsburgh and Poway and who killed Blacks in churches in Charleston and Birmingham. Those murders all have the same return address.
Let us not be distracted. The D.H.S has declared White Supremacy to be “the most persistent and lethal threat" to the US through 2021. White Supremacists have used the strategy of racist “divide and conquer” from the beginning of time – but it won’t work now. Their time has run out. It ran out during those 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 25.
In that moment, the shofar’s call heard was heard, from the flagpoles of NASCAR to the Washington Football Team. From Fort Bragg, to the NBA bubble, to Aunt Jemima’s kitchen. In that moment, the greatest sin of all time began, at long last, to unravel.
Everything changed with that knee on the neck. And our stiff necked people will rise up for justice; we will rise up to repair the world.
But first, we will take a knee in solidarity.
We now have our knee on racism’s neck. And if we pursue our mission with determination and love, there is nothing that the White Supremacists and their enablers will be able to do about it.
We must all strive to become anti-racists and anti-anti-Semites. And to do that, we must reverse the curse of Ham – and turn it into the blessing of Canaan.
How do we do that?
That is what I will talk about tomorrow….. Amen.
The Blessing of Canaan
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Like that little girl in California waiting for her school bus during the second year of integration, I too was waiting – for a world where my people would finally feel included, valued, welcomed, trusted – where we would have the dignity that we so lacked and the homeland that we so deserved. That we would be able to live without fear. No not the fear of physical attack, not here in America, but the fear of being engulfed by the shadows of an eternal victimhood. I too was waiting – for my fellow Jews to feel just an ounce of pride in who they are.
שַׂחֲקִי, שַׂחֲקִי עַל הַחֲלוֹמוֹת,
זוּ אֲנִי הַחוֹלֵם שָֹח.
שַׂחֲקִי כִּי בָאָדָם אַאֲמִין,
כִּי עוֹדֶנִּי מַאֲמִין בָּךְ.
Then my people too will flourish
And a generation shall arise
In the land, shake off its chains
And see light in every eye.
It shall live, love, accomplish, labor
In the land it is alive.
And in another poem, Tschernikovsky proclaimed:
ּדֹור אֵל בָּאָּרֶץ, שְׁכּור שפַע הַחַיִים, נָּכְרִי לְגֹוי חֹולֶהּ ולבֵית הַכֹואֲבִים.
A generation of gods walks the land,
A generation drunk on life
Estranged from a sick people
And a tribe of sufferers
The Jews were this sick people, accursed by their estrangement from their homeland. The curse was the curse of the ghetto. What they needed was the Blessing of Canaan.
The writer Leon Pinsker looked at the Jewish condition from his perch in Russia in 1882 and composed his prescription for redemption. He called it “Auto Emancipation” and it was one of the key documents of early Zionism. He called the Jews a ghostlike people. He wrote:
And Pinsker also wrote:
The man did not mince words.
The Jews were a people devoid of dignity. And that required a return to the Promised Land, where we would be able to at long last remove the curse.
The Curse of Canaan can be found in the etymology of the word, which some say derives from the Semitic root meaning "to be low, humble, subjugated."
…But others say something different. And herein lies a pathway for turning the curse into a blessing, as well as a demonstration of something that links the Jewish experience to that of African American.
In 1936, the biblical scholar Ephraim Avigdor Speiser proposed that the word Canaan comes from an ancient near eastern term that described them as Kinahhu, or having a purple-ish hue – possibly because of their Phoenician roots, by the sea.
Perhaps, then, the Blessing of Canaan, and this thirst for pride and dignity, has something to do with that color – the color purple. Alice Walker wrote, famously in her book of that name
“I think it pisses God off when you walk by the color purple in a field and don't notice it.”
Purple is the color of unity – and an inner pride that allows blue and red the self-assurance to come together. Purple is their synthesis, their glorious compromise. Purple is the color of confidence - because it can’t help but be noticed. In the Bible as well as post biblical works, purple also symbolizes royalty and dignity.
The Blessing of Canaan is the blessing of inner and outer beauty. Of being beautiful and knowing it.
That is what Jews gained when we returned to the Promised Land after 2,000 years. It is what Blacks affirmed when Martin Luther King talked about the metaphoric Promised Land that he so badly wanted to reach even as he knew he would not.
After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, the children of Israel embarked on a 40 year journey and reached Canaan. And then we were kicked out. Several times. We’d been to Canaan and wanted to go back again. And then, at long last, we did go back.
Meanwhile, after 400 years of oppression on these shores, since 1619, the people of Martin Luther King yearned for the Promised Land as well.
Martin Luther King said, “One's dignity may be assaulted, vandalized, cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered.”
The Curse of Canaan is just that: the surrender of dignity – and accepting the branding inflicted upon you in order to subjugate you. The Blessing of Canaan is finding the wherewithal to overcome it all and to somehow reach the destination.
Ibram X Kendi writes about how Blacks were forced to be docile and illiterate - and then accused of being docile and illiterate and therefore not deserving of their freedom.
How about the Jews, forced to change their names just to be tolerated in boardrooms and Hollywood studios, earning acceptance by blending in and not making waves. We were reduced to writing Christmas songs and straightening our noses in order to be accepted. Blacks had to straighten their hair. Jews were accused of being shape shifters, chameleon-like – like Woody Allen’s “Zelig,” slithery, but never really American – never truly loyal. Blacks who tried to look too light were accused of trying to pass as white. These are just some of the microaggressions that both groups have experienced.
The Curse of Canaan is the libelous canard of the lazy Black and the conniving Jew, both of them too slothful to put in an honest day’s work.
The Curse of Canaan is the curse of passivity, dependence and inaction, It is the curse of Tevye and Uncle Tom – beloved and misunderstood, and ultimately too willing to accept their lot in life rather than fight to change the traditions of their day.
An exhibit at the Jim Crow Museum explains that the Uncle Tom caricature portrays black men as faithful, happily submissive servants. The Tom caricature, like the Mammy caricature, was born in antebellum America in the defense of slavery. How could slavery be wrong, argued its proponents, if Black servants, both males and females, were contented and loyal? The Tom is presented as a smiling, wide-eyed, dark skinned server: fieldworker, cook, butler, porter, or waiter.
As for Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye, one essayist said of him, “He’s a schlimazel who provides a running commentary on his own schlimazelhood. He is Job with a punch line.”
He calls out to God – but he should be screaming at God. He is the embodiment of that frog in the pot slowly being brought to a boil, incrementally accepting increasingly traumatic events, with a shrug and a grin - including a pogrom at his daughter’s wedding - and eventually exile. When that final edict is given, he packs with a sigh and states, “I suppose we’ll have to keep waiting for the messiah - somewhere else. Meanwhile, let’s start packing.”
The Curse of Canaan is the curse of insidious stereotypes, like the happy the Aunt Jemima mammy and the neurotic Jewish comic. It is the curse of minstrel show blackfaces and the enlarged noses photoshopped on Jewish candidates in political ads. It is beyond belief that in 2020, both of these are still a thing!
It’s the curse of a forced sense of inferiority born of an unjust system. We’ve seen it all. That deep sense of shame at our parents’ passivity in America during the Holocaust – similar to what the early Zionists felt about the shtetl - and a deeper sense of anger that our parents were put through that humiliation – their egos crushed in their subservience, wanting nothing more than simply to fit in.
That’s the anger that I felt as a freshman at that teach-in at Brown in 1975. And that’s the anger that I still feel today.
Jews and Blacks have been cursed by the indignity of being considered carriers of disease and filth. Jews were banned from German swimming pools and quarantined during the cholera and typhus epidemics of 1892. Four year later, on May 18, 1896 New Orleans judge John Ferguson defended the infamous Plessy vs Ferguson ruling that established Jim Crow, claiming that “foul odors of blacks in close quarters“ made the law reasonable.
These canards continue to this day. I Googled the expression “dirty Jew” so you don’t have to, and the results weren’t pretty.
This chart shows a usage of the term that has been steadily increasing through the decades. We never stopped being called “Dirty Jews.” We just got numb to it.
Well, America. Here’s something ironic.
This summer, Europe didn’t want Pigpen to come over and play.
Hey Jim Crow, you can stick this in your white’s-only toilet!
It looks like all of America has become, in the eyes of the world, foul and disease-ridden. We have become, in the eyes of the world, what some might call a blank-hole country; it looks like America could use a piece of Minnie’s Chocolate Pie.
So it’s true that I don’t completely understand what it’s like to be Black in America today – or for the past 400 years. But I do understand what Philip Roth wrote in “The Plot Against America,” describing a Jew attending a fascist Lindbergh campaign rally. “You had to be there to see what it looked like. They live in a dream, and we live in a nightmare.”
We Jews get it… We get the pain of the confederate flag, because we have seen the swastika. We know how hurtful are the microaggressions of instinctively suspecting a dark person because they are wearing a hoodie, or of teasing a Jew by throwing a coin into a taxi. And it’s amazing how Blacks can be simultaneously be considered docile and aggressive, subservient and scary, just as Jews are both socialist radicals and corrupt capitalists.
You gotta pick one, guys! Are we Rothschild or are we Trotsky? Get your story straight!
We get it that you can be worn down by all the hate. You can get dispirited and stop fighting it. You can opt to stay home and not vote.
Let me be clear once again - there is a stark difference between being Jewish and being Black in America today. But being a Jew helps me to be an empathic ally and advocate. And we share the experience of knowing, to paraphrase Whitney Houston, that no matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my dignity.
African Americans had George Wallace, accusing them of being less than human. And American Jews had Joe McCarthy, accusing them of being less than American.
And today, we have Joe McCarthy and George Wallace, all in one! Together at last! Like Aunt Jemima’s pancakes with the syrup. And the Wallace - McCarthy merger is a brand of white supremacy that we can never allow to subvert the American Dream. We can never allow it to crush our spirit. I will never allow it to crush my spirit.
For that little boy, was me.
The Curse of Canaan is a soul crushing passivity in the face of relentless attacks on our humanity.
The Blessing of Canaan is the blessing of dignity – it is the blessing of a Promised Land 400 years in the making.
In his Laws of Teshuvah (4:4), Maimonides lists five sins that hard to shake. Among them is dignifying oneself through the humiliation of another. It’s hard to shake because most of us are indifferent to the humiliation of others, so there is little social motivation to repent.
For the Jew, this means we have to place an even greater emphasis on preserving the dignity of our neighbor. In Tractate Avot, Rabbi Eliezer says, “Let your neighbor’s dignity be precious to you as your own. (Avot 2:10)
The value of “K’vod ha-Briyot” the dignity of all God’s creatures, is paramount in our sources and is a large part of the reason the rabbis frowned on slavery – even as the Torah allowed it on a very limited basis. The Talmud adds, “So great is human dignity that it supersedes a negative commandment of the Torah.”
This ruling lay at the foundation of the Conservative Movement’s responsum sanctifying Gay Marriage.
In 1992, the Israeli Knesset passed “Basic Law: Human Dignity and Freedom.” In four of its twelve clauses it establishes a broad entitlement to dignity in Israel. These basic laws have been cited in a broad array of appeals to the Israeli Supreme Court in cases considering the rights of Arab citizens.
Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg cites human dignity to allow a hearing impaired person to wear (and carry) a hearing aid on Shabbat. He wrote, “In the hierarchy of halakhic values, God’s dignity is highest, but human dignity is not far below, as Psalm 8:6 famously declares: “That You have made him a little less than divine, but adorned humanity with glory and majesty.”
Carrying on Shabbat is not typically allowed, but the rabbis allowed it, so that people could carry smooth stones even up to a rooftop to allow people to wipe themselves for sanitary purposes. Or to remove a dead body from a home, for the sake of human dignity. These matters weren’t so theoretical this year, in a time of Covid, with a shortage of both morgue space and toilet paper.
Think of all the indignities we had to suffer this year – from rationing toilet paper – to the removal of dead bodies. Some had to remain on refrigerated trucks for days before being granted the dignity of a proper burial.
Is there anything more undignified than dying alone, with no loved one able to caress you while you breathe your final breaths? Is there anything more undignified than having to be buried with no one present, no one but the rabbi and grave digger? Is there anything more undignified than being forced to risk deathly illness in order to do basic human tasks - like buying a loaf of bread, or going to school – or voting?
We know all about the lack of dignity. This year, we have all been afflicted by the curse of Canaan.
And so – our mission as Jews, our calling, is to reverse that curse
To care for the ill – as our first responders and medical professionals have done so beautifully.
To humanize isolation, as we have tried to do in so many ways – and as we are trying to do right now.
To fight the continued deportations of migrants and the separation of families. To fight for all those denied the dignity of a paying job or a hot meal. For those without power after a storm who can’t stay with a neighbor for fear of infection.
Our mission is to reverse that curse, for the sake of Kvod ha-Briyot – the dignity of all creatures.
And to get that knee off of our neck. To fight hatred and injustice wherever it exists.
We can do that. The first step to restoring dignity to others is to realize it in ourselves. To realize that no one can take it away from us. That our trek to Canaan can lead us to a city on a hill – a New Canaan, as it were – not the last station before heaven, but the first station before holiness – and the fulfillment of our collective destiny, of becoming truly what we were meant to be.
To take in this view of Mt. Canaan and Mt. Meron as our Beth El Group did here in 2005 – is to absorb a sense of strength of identity, of history, of belonging – of pride and of beauty. And of mission and purpose. All the qualities embedded in the color purple. Mt. Canaan is our purple mountain’s majesty.
For Jews, for Blacks and for everyone else who has been scarred by the stain of hate – we are all that little boy and that little girl. Tempest-tossed in a wave of worldwide disdain. “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.” And I think it pisses God off even more when we don’t see that beauty in ourselves. Because only then can we share that magnificent gift with the world. The gift of K’vod Ha-Briyot.
And when we do that, we will affirm for all to hear – that our lives, and all lives - do matter – more than we could ever have known.
Postscript: As I was preparing to deliver this sermon, I wrote back to the expectant mother who had asked about the name Canaan for her child. Sadly, Canaan passed away in utero. I suggested that I dedicate these sermons to his memory and she thanked me for that. Even Canaan himself did not make it to the Promised Land. Let us all resolve to bring his memory there.