MAY 6, 2021 By RABBI ALEX KRESS
On June 19, 1865, two-and-a-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. They delivered the news that the Civil War had ended and General Order Number 3, declaring that “all slaves are free.”
In a Thanksgiving address a few months later, the abolitionist rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal chastised the masses for their incredulous indifference to this historic moment: “Were not those who spoke for universal freedom and acted for universal justice in a small, small minority? And was not the name abolitionist a name of disgrace? And now this name has become a name of honor…” His optimistic proclamations — “The fetters of prejudices are broken” and “The white people have become emancipated just as well as the black people” — were premature. The fetters of prejudices are still intact and our society is still broken. Slavery was abolished, but discrimination remains embedded in our laws, our cultures, and our biases. As the struggle against racism continues, Parshat Chukat holds a hidden lesson in how we might find sustenance and purpose in our journey in the pursuit of justice.
In Numbers 21, we read how the Israelites battled against adversaries during their trek through the wilderness. The Torah tells us that in the “the Book of the Wars of Adonai speaks of et vahev b’sufa” (Numbers 21:14). These last three Hebrew words are particularly confounding. The English translation “Waheb in Suphah” reads like a bygone locale, but our tradition takes an interpretive approach to explain the phrase.
In the Talmud, we read of two study partners whose intense arguments made them feel like enemies. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz teaches that vahev is related to the word for love, ahava, and b’sufa as “at its end” [b’sofa]” (Kiddushin 30b). In other words, et vahev b’sufa could be interpreted to mean: “In the end, there was love.”
Read in the context of war, it may seem naive to expect enemies to end up as lovers. However, the Jewish understanding of love is based on the depth of covenant, not on the flutters of infatuation. The great Civil Rights rabbi Joachim Prinz reflected this understanding when he said, “You cannot be a rabbi unless you love people. You don’t have to like them, but you have to love all of them. [God] says, ‘Thou shalt love the neighbor as thyself.’ [God] doesn’t say, ‘Thou shalt like them.’ I have loved all the people with whom I’ve come into contact. Even those with whom I have disagreed because I think God wants us to love people.”
This non-romantic, communal type of love elevates the concept of humanity as being created in the Divine image and espouses an understanding of covenantal responsibility to each other. Every human being has innate, inalienable worth, and Judaism demands that we see each other through that lens of covenantal love.
When I read et vahev b’sufa through the creative exegesis of our tradition, I am transported to the March on Washington in 1963, when, just before Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Rabbi Prinz laid out the Abrahamic case for our ongoing fight against racism: “Our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody’s neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man’s dignity and integrity.”
Just as Parshat Chukat lists the Israelites’ battles and resting places in their trek toward the Promised Land, so too should we mark our nation’s jagged journey toward racial justice. It is therefore appropriate to mark not just the official end of slavery with the phrase et vahev b’sufa, but also the continuing struggle against the legacy of Jim Crow – systemic racism.
Perhaps et vahev b’sufa is yet another reminder in our tradition of what redemption should look like: a time of overflowing covenantal love in which we lift up our fellow human beings’ dignity and integrity. Though that promised land remains far off with many righteous battles and much good trouble between here and there, a prayer for redemption in the prayer book Mishkan T’filah guides our way: “Wherever we go, it is eternally Egypt. That there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands, marching together.”