In 1943, my grandmother Rachel and her sister Gela fled their hometown of Rakov with fake papers provided by a local official, leaving behind the only home they’d ever known for an uncertain future as they traveled west searching for work. They were the only survivors of a massacre of the town’s residents by the Polish population. My grandmother surmises that the Nazis had encouraged the Poles to commit the atrocity, and the Poles, motivated by greed, killed the Jews in order that they be able to take their houses and their goods. My grandmother Rachel, pretending to be a Polish Catholic, spent the next year working on a farm outside of Munchengladbach, until the Allies liberated Western Germany sometime around late November in 1944. At the age of 16, she and her sister were hustled off to Brussels and made their way to North America in 1946.
Around that time, or sometime before, other Polish Jews who had been deported to concentration camps attempted to return to their homes and reclaim their property from the Poles who had taken it from them. They were denied, violently. The most famous example of this was the Kielce massacre which took place on July 4, 1946, killing 42 Jews. The Jewish population of Poland emptied out afterwards - 20,000 people left in just the month of July, leaving a total of just 12,000 Jews in all of Poland. Only a scant minority returned to their own homes or reclaimed the property that was taken from them.
I imagine you already know this, but my grandmother and her sister were never compensated for the home they lost, or the furniture or valuables that were pilfered. They certainly were not compensated for the deaths of their mother, father, two brothers, and sister. And they were not paid for the year of slave labor they did as farm hands harvesting the grain and produce that fed the German Army. And realistically, neither my grandmother, nor her three children, nor her six grandchildren have ever sought to collect damages from Poland, or the residents of Rakov, or the Germans. We don’t fall into the convenient categories for which German reparations have been earmarked, and we don’t have any documentation, because the idea that my grandmother would have been asking for receipts as she fled for her life is patently absurd. We don’t plan to collect damages from Poland because Poland has spent the last 75 years denying that they were perpetrators, and rather telling the world that they were only victims of the Nazis. There is no recouping of loss from someone that denies they wronged you in the first place. Poland lives in a state of constant, widespread Holocaust denial. They say ‘it’s not our problem.’ They can, if they choose to, also argue that it was so long ago, and that the modern Polish citizen was not culpable. Guilt disappears by fading and receding into the past like the light slips away from day until it becomes dusk, and then dark. If you cannot see it, it is not there.
My family has carried the story of our escape from Rakov - we are the only known surviving family of the village - with unease. My grandmother did not speak of it, except only on a few rare occasions. But we all inherited some aspect of the trauma my grandmother experienced. Moreso than the trauma, we have carried the anger. When I was kid, I was informed by my grandmother, on multiple occasions, never to go back to Poland; never to try and visit her town or see when she was from. Poland was a place of ghosts. It was a place of wicked people. It was to my grandmother, the personification of evil as a physical place. When we took my grandmother to see Schindler’s List, after the credits, my grandmother said only one thing ‘Too many Poles.’ She was mad that Steven Speilberg had used too many locals on the film crew for the movie.
I want to be clear - my grandmother doesn’t want money. Nothing can right the wrongs of the past. And my mother doesn’t need the money - she’s got her pension from the LA Unified school district, and she’s set. And I don’t need the money, although I do still have about 9 more years till I pay off my rabbinical school student loans. But there’s a sense that a sin was committed. And it was simply swept under the rug; nothing to see here, no real crime, folks. We just pretend like those Poles always lived in those houses and owned those nice candlesticks, and turn our heads, and go on. It feels wrong to me. It will always feel wrong to me until something flips the narrative - Poland denies its guilt, and my family goes on carrying our intergenerational anger. Wrong is wrong, until someone tries to make it right.
Our Torah portion this week contains the well-known story of the daughters of Zelophehad - Machlah, Hoglah, Milchah, Noa, Tirtzah - whose father dies. In Numbers 27 the women say to Moses and Aaron
“Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against God, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons.
Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”
Moses brought their case before God.
And God said to Moses,
The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.”
The implication in the story is that property had passed from father to son only, but never from father to daughter. In fact, had the women not interceded, Zelophechads property was to go to his brothers children. But the women said *‘that’s wrong’*
So Moses took it up with God, and God said ‘they’re right. Compensate them.’ The wrong was righted.
There is a further concept within Torah which speaks to the concepts of right and wrong and property and inheritance, and that is the principle of the land of Israel belonging to the entirety of the people of Israel. The land was apportioned to each of the tribes and all of the families upon entry as an eternal possession. As the Torah tells us in Genesis 17,
וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֵת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ אֵת כָּל־אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם
I assign the land you sojourn in to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding.” In fact, the word inheritance appears in the five books of the Torah 322 times. In a huge number of those references, we are told that the land of Israel is the everlasting possession of all of the people, for all times sake. Every person receives an equal share of the land in which they live, and the bounty which it produces, and no one can take that away. That which God has granted to the people may not be deprived to them by the wrongful acts and human hands. The daughters of Zelophechad are an echo of this principle - when humans seek to deprive others of equal inheritance, God Godself steps in to right the wrong. You might already know this, but in case you didn’t, the story of the daughters of zelophechad is exception in Torah in that it is the only place when a mitzvah is given at Sinai, then appealed elsewhere in Torah directly to God, ultimately resulting in the overturning of the law and the reapportionment of property. God never before and never after intervenes to modify one of the 613 commandments.
America is currently in the throes of great turmoil over the treatment of its Black citizens, whose experience in this country is the history of overcoming unbelievable hardship, from slavery to Jim Crow to lynchings to segregation to red lining to economic inequality to murder at the hands of police officers. We are, in essence, engaged in a 400 year battle against our nations original sin which began when in 1619 the first Negro slaves came off a ship from Africa, manacles around their necks and hands and feet, to be auctioned off to build the agrarian economy of the South into a powerhouse that would ultimately fuel America’s rise to become one of the worlds great nations. They were never compensated for the loss of their freedom. They were never compensated for the deaths of their mothers and their fathers and their sisters and brothers in the holds of the ships or by the whip. They were never paid for their labor - for 250 years they weren’t paid. Slaves literally built the building that serves as the most powerful office on the planet, the home of the president of the United States, the White House. And they never even got a thin dime out of the deal.
I know some of you are now beginning to become uncomfortable. You may be uncomfortable to have history framed in a way in which America is not ‘one great nation , indivisible, with liberty and justice for all’ but rather a nation that has done wrong. Or you may be uncomfortable because the idea that I am presenting is a difficult one to wrap your mind around. When people hear the word ‘reparations’ - they immediately think ‘how is handing out free money fair?’ They think ‘but who will pay for that?’ And I hear you. I used to think that way too.
But I think the first step in moving towards justice for Blacks in America is opening up to the possibility that whatever we’ve been doing to this point - with policing and mass incarceration and economic and educational inequality - is not working. The progress that has been made for Blacks in this country between Rodney King in 1991 and George Floyd in 2020 is negligible - in 30 years, we’ve barely moved the needle. So if the only thing I accomplish in this dvar torah is encourage you to think long and hard about reparations, that’s enough.
The idea of this sermon - of reparations - is of course quite appropriate to the overall themes of our high holidays - of doing teshuvah, repentance. Jewish notions of proper repentance ; as you all surely know ; go well beyond simply saying you’re sorry and promising never to do it again. When monetary property has been misappropriated, uncompensated, or stolen, the Talmud prescribes that the person that does the wrong must make some form of restitution for the loss that they cause. America took advantage of the labor of Black Americans for 240 years, and then, with the end of slavery, declared that the wrong had been righted. There was a famous call by General Sherman during the Civil War to reapportion seized plantations to slaves in 1865, the so-called ‘40 acres and a mule’, but in practice, it never happened, and post-Civil War reconstruction backslid into a system of injustice and economic inequality without any manner of reparations. Reparations of some kind for Black Americans would be the final and long-awaited conclusion to America’s process of teshuvah - a true and proper conclusion to a moral failing of our nation that still extends its reach into many aspects of our modern life.
To the startling and heartbreaking facts of inequality in America, the issue of wealth and inheritance, or the lack thereof, is perhaps the starkest and most instructive about why the idea of reparations should be considered. As Ta-nehesi Coates has described it, “The typical black family in this country has one-tenth the wealth of the typical white family. Effectively, the black family in America is working without a safety net. When financial calamity strikes—a medical emergency, divorce, job loss—the fall is precipitous.” After you know that fact, and you take into account what kind of neighborhoods blacks live in, what kind of education they can afford to pay for, what kind of jobs they are qualified to get, what kind of opportunities are afforded to them or denied to them, you begin to see that for most people, starting with very little will almost certainly lead to them earning very little, and passing on very little. The cycle is perpetuated.
I am not here to explain what reparations look like, or how to pay for them. It is well outside of my field of expertise. I also cannot even begin to elucidate the many, many historical disadvantages that the average Black person in America today is battling. The number of injustices is so vast that it would take a four-year college course of study to even scratch the surface. I will simply direct you to the essay in The Atlantic by Tanehesi Coates from 2014 entitled ‘The Case for Reparations’. When services are over, sit down and read it. I guarantee, you will be better for it.
Nevertheless, short of making you all do the assigned reading and come back tomorrow to write me an essay,
I do think it is fairly uncontroversial for me to state unequivocally that when it comes to how America, meaning you and me, have treated Blacks in this country, a wrong has committed, and an effort should be made to make it right. And that simple idea - the acceptance of the notion that we ought to right a wrong - is the first critical step towards reparations. I don’t know what exactly reparations look like, but we ought to make a good faith effort to begin the conversation. Maybe Black first time homeowners should get a good chunk of a down payment; maybe Black undergraduate and technical college education should be free. Maybe it’s as simple as a one-time check to the descendants of slaves. Maybe it’s small and symbolic. Maybe it’s large and reshapes American society. I don’t know.
I do know two things, though.
First, just a chapter after the daughters of Zelophechad, the Torah delineates a series of sacrificial offerings the Israelites are to bring to God at holidays, including that line in the Mussaf service in Sim Shalom that says ‘some skip this part’ about the offering of
“שְׁנֵי־כְבָשִׂים בְּנֵי־שָׁנָה תְּמִימִם , two yearling lambs without blemish”
But it also includes mention of sin offerings - the offering a person makes when they did something wrong and they need to make it write. The Torah in Numbers 28:22 tells us
"וּשְׂעִיר חַטָּאת אֶחָד לְכַפֵּר עֲלֵיכֶם׃"
“And there shall be one goat for a sin offering, to make expiation in your behalf.”
The Torah typically speaks in sparse language, so the final few words in that sentence - ‘to make expiation in your behalf’ - seem notable because they raise up the concept that there is some kind of need for a financial penalty in order to assuage the guilt of an original wrongdoing. It is ‘l’kapper alecheim’ - it atones for you. The process in Judaism of forgiveness from sin is in giving something up in exchange - it acknowledges the wrongdoing; it attempts to put a semblance of a price on it; and somehow, it allows the victim and the perpetrator to move on. I used the most proximal example, but the Torah is full of examples between human and human where injustice is rebalanced through monetary compensation. Wrong is wrong, until someone makes it right.
And second, I know my family hasn’t forgiven Poland. And I think it likely that I will instruct my children never to go there - never to spend a penny of our families money in that place - unless some attempt is made to right the original sin that was done to our family by that country and its citizens. I will pass on our trauma and our anger to the fourth generation of my family for the simple reason that nobody has ever said ‘I’m sorry. Here is a small token by which we acknowledge that we did wrong.’ Reparations for us wouldn’t be a handout or a payoff. It would simply be an admission of guilt, and a step in the right direction towards justice, and maybe someday, forgiveness.
America is the greatest country in the world. Or at least, it ought to be. In order to be great, we need to set the example of what it is to be just and moral. Again, to quote Ta-nehesi Coates, “To celebrate freedom and democracy while forgetting America’s origins in a slavery economy is patriotism à la carte.” We can’t fix what ails us by renaming an NFL team or pulling down a statue - we need to look deeper and harder at ourselves. Poland may think that guilt will fade into the darkness and disappear, but we know better. A wrong that isn’t righted festers like a sore. A debt that is unpaid never goes away.