Delivered Yom Kippur Morning, 5783/2022
Congregation Mishkan Israel, Hamden, CT
Sarah bent down and dipped her rag into the bucket of blood. She slowly started painting her doorpost which turned a dark, burnt red color. As she dipped her rag again she wondered, will we really go free tomorrow? As the blood dripped down the door post onto the floor she thought about the blood spilled during their 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Inside her home, the rest of her family quickly packed anything they could carry on their backs. She finished and went inside as the sun was setting. As Sarah lay in bed she began to hear screaming coming from the homes of the Egyptians, and finally a piercing wail coming from the Pharoah’s palace. The next morning as dawn broke, word spread through the camp that Pharoah had actually let the Israelites go free.
Sarah, her family, neighbors and friends, followed Moses’s orders to take from the Egyptians objects of silver and gold, and clothing. God had disposed the Egyptians favorably toward the Israelites, and they let them have their request.” Pharoah further tells Moses that the Israelites should “take your flocks and herds.” As they began their journey toward freedom, they had enough wealth and animals to sustain them on their journey.
Later in Deuteronomy, God commands us: “If a fellow Hebrew – man or woman—is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not send them away empty-handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat, with which your God has blessed you. Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and your God redeemed you; therefore I command you today.” Do not send them away emptyhanded.
As free people, we remember that we were slaves ourselves, and therefore even if we were to own slaves, we should offer reparations when we free them. When Deuteronomy was written our ancestors recognized that financial compensation is both necessary for survival and a moral obligation. 3000 years later, “do not send them away empty-handed” is still one of the 613 commandments. Our Talmud records lengthy conversations by our sages about how much compensation is due. While our sages disagree about the amount, all agree that payment must be made for both pain and suffering and for any work performed as slaves. Eventually, they conclude one determines the payment based upon the verse in Deuteronomy, “Of that with which the Lord your God has blessed you.” The Talmud states, “This teaches that…[the] severance gift should be in accordance with the blessing one possesses.”
The Talmud also clearly states that “Just as payment for the labor of a hired worker is given to his heirs when he dies, so too this severance gift for the slave’s labor should be given to his heirs when he dies.” For thousands of years humans have used money and wealth as a tool of power and our ancestors recognize that if we harm someone, no matter how we harmed them, we are required to make financial restitution.
The moral obligation for monetary restitution is deeply ingrained in Jewish law beyond slavery. In the Torah, we are commanded to repay someone for lost, damaged or stolen property and for material harm to one’s body. Today, on Yom Kippur, we include in our liturgy an ancient teaching that Yom Kippur does not atone for transgressions between two people until they make peace between them. Apologizing is an important part of atonement, but to make peace, Shalom, wholeness, requires restitution for damages in accordance with the blessings that God has given us.
When we learn that someone has been harmed, accidentally or intentionally, and whether through subjugation, oppression or marginalization, Jewish law stipulates that a path to peace requires compensation. After the Holocaust, Jews used this principle to obtain reparations from the German government through the Holocaust Claims Commission, thereby asserting that if an entire nation causes harm, the nation is responsible for payment.
“On September 20, 1945, three months after the end of World War II, Chaim Weizmann, on behalf of the Jewish Agency, submitted to the governments of the U.S., USSR, UK, and France, a memorandum demanding reparations, restitution, and indemnification due to the Jewish people from Germany for its involvement in the Holocaust.” The negotiations took seven years, and in 1953 payments were eventually made by the West German government. The initial installments went to Israel in the form of oil from the UK, and much of the rest essential raw materials exported from Germany itself. These concessions were necessary to help finance and create the young Jewish State and settle the thousands of refugees after the Holocaust. Crucially, an additional $100 million was designated as direct reparations for survivors. In 1988, more money was allocated to enable survivors to continue receiving payments, and in 2018 Germany pledged additional reparations to help with “more frequent and better quality home care, food support, transportation and medical services.”
My great Aunts and Uncles, of blessed memory, received these lifelines from the German government throughout their lives. These payments enabled my family and other survivors to live with dignity and survive throughout the rest of their lives.
Yet reparations are not only for the time robbed from so many survivors. Lawsuits and negotiations continued and in “1999 the German government and German industry agreed to compensate Jews and non-Jews specifically for slave and forced labor they performed for German companies during the war.” The German government created a foundation – “Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future” – with assets of approximately $5 billion. Slave and forced laborers still alive at the time of the settlement could apply to receive a lump sum payment of between $2,500 and $7,500 from the foundation; in all, over 140,000 Jewish survivors from more than 25 countries received payments.”
The Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, an organization representing 23 major Jewish organizations, is responsible for negotiating, receiving, and distributing money to individuals. They calculate that “since 1952, the German government has paid more than $90 billion in indemnification to individuals for suffering and losses resulting from persecution by the Nazis.” “As of July 2019, more than 521,500 Jewish victims of Nazi persecution had received a one-time payment.”
We know how many survivors have received payments because in 2018 Congress almost unanimously passed the “Justice for Uncompensated Survivors Today Act.” This law “requires the State Department to report to Congress on steps that 47 countries in Europe have taken to compensate Holocaust survivors and their heirs for assets seized by Nazi Germany and post-war communist governments.”
As former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, wrote in a letter to Congress, “As World War II ended in Europe, the United States led the effort to seek a measure of justice in the form of restitution or compensation for individuals whose assets were stolen during the Holocaust. Given the advanced age of Holocaust survivors, many of whom live in poverty, the findings of this report serve as a reminder that countries must act with a greater sense of urgency to provide restitution or compensation for the property wrongfully seized from victims of the Holocaust and other victims of Nazi persecution. All victims of the Nazi regime,” he wrote, “should be able to live out their remaining days in dignity.”
Do not send them away empty handed. We were slaves in the land of Egypt, we were victims of Nazi persecution, we remember what it was like to be exploited and therefore are entitled to receive and commanded to give reparations. Even when we or our ancestors might not be directly responsible.
The people and Government of the United States are responsible for not only the subjugation of Black people during slavery, but also the marginalization of Black people during Jim Crow, apart from the brief period of Reconstruction, from 1865 to 1877, which offered economic equality to newly freed slaves. As the Encyclopedia Britannica notes, since emancipation through at least the civil rights era, “a new racial system had been put in place in the South, resting on the disenfranchisement of Black voters, a rigid system of racial segregation, and the relegation of African Americans to low-wage agricultural and domestic employment.” This third point, “the relegation of African Americans to low-wage jobs,” is perhaps the most important with regards to reparations. Voting rights can be restored, separation can be undone through signage and transportation, but when we intentionally block pathways to build generational wealth the effects can be felt for generations. The United States not only sent away slaves empty-handed but we also used racist financial policies as a means of further oppression.
The parallels between the financial repercussions of the Holocaust and Black people in the United States has led to similar outcomes. In 2009 Ellie Wiesel said, “Just measure the added ugliness of their hideous crimes: [the Nazis] stole not only the wealth of the wealthy but also the poverty of the poor. . .Only later did I realize that what we so poorly call the Holocaust deals not only with political dictatorship, racist ideology and military conquest; but also with…financial gain, [and] state-organized robbery. . .”
In 2018, 35% of the 80,000 Holocaust survivors living in the United States were living in poverty, far above the 10.5% of all Americans living in poverty. That same year, according to the Census Bureau, 20.8% of people of color were also living in poverty, compared to just 7.3% of non-Hispanic White people. This is not a coincidence. When a group of people are victims of State-sponsored financial crimes, more will end up be living in poverty. They were sent away empty handed.
Reparations were a consideration for the US Government in 1862, though instead of compensating slaves, Congress passed a law to pay Union slave-owners up to $300 per slave that they emancipated. Over $25 million in today’s dollars was given out to already-wealthy white men. Nothing was paid to those who had been enslaved. Today, the average white family has roughly 10 times the amount of wealth as the average Black family.
Jews are obligated to help make financial restitution for victims of slavery and discrimination and for their descendants in accordance with the blessing we possess. We just need to figure out how. The United States of America has received a lot of blessings. According to the UN, the US currently holds almost 25% of the world’s wealth, with $19.4 trillion dollars. Just as our sages argued in the Talmud about how much to pay former slaves, our leaders continue to argue how, and if, we should pay reparations.
In January 2021, the House introduced H.R. 40, a “bill to establish the Commission to Study and Develop Reparation Proposals for African Americans. The commission shall examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies. The commission shall identify (1) the role of the federal and state governments in supporting the institution of slavery, (2) forms of discrimination in the public and private sectors against freed slaves and their descendants, and (3) lingering negative effects of slavery on living African Americans and society.” Unfortunately this bill, just to study the problem, did not pass.
Later this afternoon at 3:00pm, our Confronting Racism series leaders will create a space for to help us examine our own views about whether reparations for slavery and Jim Crow are warranted and to think about our Jewish obligations. The in-person session will take place in the lounge. If you want to join a separate Zoom room, please register via the link on the CMI website calendar.
Lo Tashlichu Reikam, do not send them away empty-handed. 3,000 years ago, our ancestors understood that a strong society provides economic compensation when one has been wronged and generations of Jews have agreed and even strengthened the law. Today we bear that responsibility. We atone for our transgressions, and we know that Yom Kippur will not make us, our community or country whole until we fulfill our obligations to restore justice for all. May we find the courage and resolve to truly make peace among all peoples and our to make country an equitable home for all.
G’mar chatima tova, may we all be written for blessing in the book of life.
Bavli Kiddushin 15a:7