Human Rights Shabbat D’Var Torah – Part 1

This is the first of three parts of the talk I gave on Saturday at the Jewish Community of Amherst.

Shabbat Shalom,

Today is Human Rights Shabbat. Every year, Tru’ah, which used to be called Rabbis for Human Rights invites congregations to celebrate the 1948 UN signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This year Tru’ah is focusing on Article 21 which states, unfortunately in patriarchal language, :

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

In 1948, when these very inspiring words were adopted, African Americans living in Jim Crow South did not have access to any of these rights.  In 1920, almost 2,000 blacks lived in Charlottesville, Virginia. Only 30 voted in the 1920 presidential election.

Today’s parsha begins the Joseph story. In preparing for this D’Var, I read the whole tale which spans four Shabbats. Looking at the arc of the story, it can be read as Joseph’s journey from Slave to Citizen. Co-incidentally, that is the title of a book by Frank Tannenbaum which Branch Rickey read when he was contemplating choosing Jackie Robinson to break the color line in professional baseball.

More broadly, Joseph’s life was also the story of a foreigner and his descendants achieving great success in a foreign land. This immigrant story, read on its own as a novella, is resonant with the success of Jews in America. Joseph was able to move from having been bought and sold to becoming the chief economic advisor to the Pharaoh. The number of Jews in President-elect Biden’s cabinet reminds us of Joseph’s success.

For Joseph, slavery was not a permanent status or mark. For African Americans, brought in chains to this land, beginning in 1619, slavery was a permanent condition. The Civil War ended this inhumane institution and the brief equalitarian period of Reconstruction brought constitutional amendments which enshrined citizenship for all people and voting rights for all men, black and white.

The 13th amendment abolished slavery and the 14th and 15th established birthright citizenship and granted black men the right to vote. The 15th Amendment was ratified in 1870; at that time Federal troop still occupied wide swaths of the former Confederate States. Once federal troops were withdrawn, following the 1876 election, jurisdiction over voting returned to the individual states. By the late 19th century, most Southern blacks had effectively lost their voting rights. Since citizenship and voting, in a democracy, are inextricably linked, the disenfranchisement of blacks was complete.

Next week I will post the second of the three parts of this talk.