A Time Like This: Reaching Out to Blacks and Latinos
In the movie Borat, the main character Borat travels to America from his small village in Kazhakstan with the goal of bringing back wisdom to his country. One of his objectives is to improve his sense of humor. He says Kazakstan is 98th in the world in humor.
So, Borat goes to a humor coach, Pat Haggerty, who tries to teach him how to tell a ‘not’ joke. He illustrates by noting that Borat’s suit is gray. If he were telling a not joke, he might say: “this suit is black….not!”
So, Borat tries it. He goes: “this suit is black not.” And, Haggerty says: “no, you need to pause,” and he demonstrates again: “this suit is black…pause….not!” So, Borat goes: “this suit is black…pause…not!”
So, Haggerty explains to Borat that he should pause slightly, not actually say the word ‘pause.’ Finally, Borat seems to get it. He says: “this suit is black………………” and then Borat waits an inordinately long time, about 10 seconds, so long, that Haggerty thinks he’s never going to finish the joke…and just at the precise moment when Haggarty intervenes, Borah says: “Not!”
Timing is critical in humor, and in life. And, that’s why timing is so central to today’s parasha. In last week’s parasha, Mikketz, Joseph had framed his brother Benjamin for stealing his special goblet and threatened to take him prisoner. Judah had stepped forward and said, “You got us. We did it. And, we feel terrible. Make us all your slaves.”
And, Joseph responded: “I’m not a monster. I’ll just punish the guilty one, Benjamin. And, the rest of you can go home in peace.”
The action this week picks up where last week’s episode left off. Judah draws close to Joseph and says to him: “Benjamin is our father’s favorite. And, he has already lost one favorite child. I can’t face my father without Benjamin. So, take me as a slave instead.”
Judah’s plea works. Joseph can’t hold back his emotions any longer. He clears the room, he breaks into tears, and he says to his brothers: “I am Joseph.” But, let’s notice first how Judah’s offer has changed. He has come down from offering all of the brothers as slaves to just him instead of Benjamin. Why didn’t he make that offer immediately?
It’s all about timing. Judah sensed that Joseph was too angry at first to listen to reason. He had to establish a climate of receptivity. So, he made an exaggerated offer to gain Joseph’s favor. Only when Joseph offered to take only one slave did Judah step in and say: “Take one, but take me instead.”
And, the response, Joseph’s revelation, is equally exquisitely timed for maximum emotional impact. Certain things had to happen before this family could be a family again. Joseph had to experience the suffering of slavery and learn to be a more empathetic person. Judah had to experience the loss of two children and learn to understand how his father felt when he lost Joseph. The brothers had to be given a chance to repent and do the right thing given another chance. And, Joseph had to see that they had changed. When all these things came together, the time was right for a new relationship between Joseph and his family.
The same is true in the story of Esther which is written with the story of Joseph in mind. When Esther learns that Haman wants to destroy the Jewish people, she doesn’t just run up to the King and ask for help. She builds suspense and intrigue in the King’s mind and in Haman’s mind. She times her dramatic confession perfectly for maximum effect.
And, when Mordecai first comes to Esther to ask her to plead before the king, he makes the case that the timing for such a plea is just right. He say: “U’mi yodea im l’eit kazot higat la’malchut. Who knows if it isn’t for this very moment that you became the queen? How lucky we are that just at the moment that the Jewish people needs help the most, you are in a position to do something!”
What about us? How is timing affecting the Jewish people right now? A few weeks ago, on the last night of our Civil Discourse series, Marina, the leader of our Hispanic guests said to me: “We need the help of the Jewish community. We have fled for our lives from El Salvador. And, we are seeking asylum in America. If we were to be returned to our native country, we would be killed. And, you can help us.” Why? “Because we see you as a community that is politically influential, economically successful and a community with values.”
In other words, the timing is just right. This combination of factors has not always been present. We have always been a community of values. But, we are right now at the very height of our political influence and economic success in America.
I would add two more factors to what makes this a unique time for Jews in America. First of all, we are at the height of our comfort level with our Jewish identity in America. Never before have we felt as easy with being identified publicly as Jews.
The other day I was watching an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisels.” Oh, my God. Jew this, Jew that. Rabbis being invited to Break the Fast. In all my life, I have never seen anything as unabashedly Jewish as this in a major popular tv series.
And, this isn’t rare. I mentioned a few weeks ago Gal Gadot speaking Hebrew in her opening monologue on Saturday Night Live. Neither of these publicly Jewish things would have happened even ten years ago.
Yet, ironically, at the height of our confidence, there are new reasons to feel insecure. What happened at Charlottesville is only one example of a resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism in both in America and Europe. That’s from the right. From the left, we have anti-semitism that takes the form of anti-Zionism, and in America the hatred of Israel has taken an especially ugly turn on college campuses.
What is the upshot of this unique moment of confidence and insecurity? There is both a moral and practical opportunity here. On the moral side, we are close enough to our own vulnerability to identify with others who are vulnerable, and because we are successful, we have the maximum means to help them.
On the practical side, we need friends and allies. And, it makes sense for us to look for allies among groups who share a concern about helping the vulnerable in society. In recent years, the lead for this has been taken by Israel. Israelis are also feeling a unique combination of confidence and vulnerability. So, Israel is taking a page from the American Jewish playbook. Israel is reaching out to people of color.
In the past year, Netanyahu has put a lot of effort into deepening Israel’s relationship with China, with India and especially with Africa. It’s an effort that is rooted in the Jewish value of tikkun olam. And, it’s equally rooted in pragmatism.
We need friends and allies. And, the world is changing. The players are changing. The timing is right for us to form new friendships and to renew old friendships that have declined. We have been hammered by a distorted version of intersectionality. This view portrays all white people as oppressors and all people of color as victims. According to this view, Zionism is just another form of white privilege, so it must be opposed like all racist oppression.
We need to change this thinking, both for moral and practical reason. And, we have a moment of opportunity in our own community. The Latino community is a rising and increasingly influential population. A portion of that community has reached out to us for help. It’s in our moral and practical interest to take advantage of this moment.
And, it has always made sense for Blacks and Jews to be allies. It’s true, our relationship has been through a lot of ups and downs. But, we have learned a lot over the decades that can benefit us now. Now is an opportune moment for us to renew this relationship. If we aren’t proactive, others will take advantage of our inaction to drive a deeper wedge between our communities and portray as unfairly as being on the wrong side of history.
Once we American Jews put a lot of effort into cultivating relationships with other ethnic and religious groups. Now, Israel is leading the way in that effort. What Israel is doing on an international scale in Asia and Africa, we need to do here on a local scale in America.
Reaching out to the Latino and Black communities would be a great place to start. The time is right. And in life, timing is everything.
- If you are interested in helping to cultivate a relationship between Jews and Latinos and/or Jews and Blacks, please contact me. Something I have begun to think about as a result of our recent series is a civil discourse series in Fall, 2018 called “Race in America: Jewish and Black Perspectives.”
- I invite you to join me for the Saturday night, January session on Israel Civil Discourse at Limmud (you can register at limmudinseattle.org).It’s a panel discussion which I’ll be moderating.
- Mark your calendar for the weekend of February 23-25 for SIR Rabbi Daniel Roth, whose theme will be 9 Adar: the Jewish Day of Conflict Resolution. On Sunday, February 25 we will have a program called “Is Civil Discourse About Israel Possible: a Jewish, Muslim and Christian Perspective”. Not to be missed!
- We plan on having a 3-4 civil discourse series on Israel on Wednesday nights in April-May 2018. Watch for more information.
Thank you in advance for your interest in these exciting and we hope fruitful ventures!
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum