The first gallery of the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, AL—a project of Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative—contains a series of life-size holograms of black slaves locked in pens. They are waiting to be auctioned to the vast number of slave owners who made Montgomery the most active Southern port in the slave trade from the 1850s until the end of the Civil War. Dressed in 19th-century clothing and whispering in hushed, fearful tones so visitors have to lean in to hear, the figures shock and captivate with their powerful authenticity. The site of this gallery and the museum is a former warehouse where slaves were held, and the stories told by these images are actual slave testimonies. In one pen, a frantic mother pleads with you for help finding her children from whom she’s been separated; in another are a few young kids, peering out between the bars crying, “Mama! Mama?” The emotional effect is chilling. Haunting. It doesn’t go away.
Studying and reading Torah is not a dive into Jewish history; it’s a commitment to always be answering the call to righteousness. Similarly, touring the south and bearing witness to the struggle for civil rights with Jewish eyes is not a romp through the past; it’s a deep, urgent engagement with the present as our country continues to resist the call to justice.
We rose to our feet last Shabbat in shul to hear the 10 Commandments, the first of which declares:
אָֽנֹכִ֖י֙ יְהוָ֣ה אֱלֹהֶ֑֔יךָ אֲשֶׁ֧ר הוֹצֵאתִ֛יךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם מִבֵּ֣֥ית עֲבָדִֽ֑ים׃
I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of slavery.
This week we’ll listen to the expansion of these commandments in the form of the 53 mitzvot Parashat Mishpatim teaches, the first of which declares:
כִּ֤י תִקְנֶה֙ עֶ֣בֶד עִבְרִ֔י שֵׁ֥שׁ שָׁנִ֖ים יַעֲבֹ֑ד וּבַ֨שְּׁבִעִ֔ת יֵצֵ֥א לַֽחָפְשִׁ֖י חִנָּֽם׃
When you acquire a male Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.
Before moving on to other communal and religious rules, the text continues to establish a framework for the fair treatment and eventual rehabilitation of slaves, deplorable as that feature of biblical society was.
The Torah’s entire system of sacred responsibilities, from its grand opening to its myriad details, is predicated on the ideals of freedom and human dignity: ours, and that of those who are in our control.
This became the foundation of Jewish social and spiritual integrity: To have emerged from our own suffering only to cause others to suffer would be not only a gross violation of our noble tradition, it would also make a mockery of our own liberation.
Aside from the inescapable horror of that opening gallery of the Legacy Museum, where slaves look into your eyes and beg you for help, the emotion that gripped me was precisely that shameful mocking—of my own freedom, and that of black Americans paid for with abuse, exploitation, lynchings, and still far from complete. All I could think about were the parents and children at our southern border today, who have been forcibly separated from one another as our government tries to reform US immigration law.
No, this museum visit was not a look back to yesterday; it was a mirror of today. And it was brutal to meet its gaze, because it made a mockery of every step toward progress for which so many have lived and died.
In the eyes of those 19th-century children in Montgomery who pleaded with me to help them find their parents, I saw the eyes of the more than 5,446 children our government has separated from their parents seeking asylum here—including 1,100 since the June 2018 Executive Order that was supposed to suspend the separations. In the plaintive voices of their parents from over 150 years ago I heard the cries of mothers and fathers today—desperate to locate their infants and toddlers, who have been taken away from them for the high crime of seeking safety and refuge for their families.
Yes, it’s complex work to build just societies wherein diverse communities and individuals have their stories honored, their values respected, their pain nursed, and their freedom protected. Tragically, we’re living through a time when those in power choose to escape that complex work by rolling back hard-won achievements in the realm of human rights. But while being a legislator is difficult and determining fair immigration law can be challenging, being a mensch—a decent and compassionate human being—is not.
Whether we are contemplating religious law or civil law, the Torah teaches that the framework must always begin with freedom and dignity—our own, and that of the people whose lives we have the power to shape. Otherwise, it’s all, quite simply, a sham.
Rise up again this week, and the next, and the next. Do something to ensure that— far from being made into a mockery of the precious gift of our freedom—the Torah and her lessons remain a clarion call to justice: one that we must ensure flows like a mighty stream, carrying people of all kinds toward not only a promised land, but lands filled with promise.