PARSHAT PEKUDEI

REPARATIONS

“All the gold that was used for the work, in all the work of the sanctuary—the elevation offering of gold—came to 29 talents and 730 shekels by the sanctuary weight.”  (Exodus 38:24)

            This portion begins with a detailed accounting of the material used in the building of the tabernacle.  Tradition says that Moses did this accounting as proof that he did not steal anything for his personal use.  My dad was a certified public accountant, and I always look at this chapter as the world’s first certified audit.

            The fascinating question is how a group of former slaves fleeing into the wilderness acquired all this precious material.  For example, there are 29 talents and 730 shekels of gold, not quite Fort Knox but still a substantial amount.  Where did the Israelites get this gold?  The answer is that the Egyptians gave them valuables as they were preparing to flee.  Perhaps after ten horrible plagues, the Egyptians encouraged the Israelites to flee more quickly.  But possibly the valuables were reparations.  It was a payback for centuries of backbreaking labor.

            Reparations are a payback for past wrongs.  They can never totally compensate for the loss that people suffered.  But it is the beginning of what is known as reparative justice, trying to return relationships to what they were like before the wrongdoing.  I have heard antisemites comment about how the Israelites stole goods from the Egyptians as they fled.  But this gold was not stolen.  It was given away as an attempt to pay back the Israelites for their forced labor.

            Reparations has become an issue in modern times.  My father-in-law was a Holocaust survivor.  He received monthly reparation payments from the West German government throughout his life.  They stopped when he died; the reparations were not carried on to the next generation.  It was a major controversy in the Jewish world when the German government offered these reparations to survivors.  Many Jews opposed the payments, saying that it could never compensate for the suffering of Jews.  But others believed it was a small amount of justice to help those who have suffered the worst war crime in history.

            The issue of reparations has become a major issue in the United States.  Many progressives feel that the black community should be compensated for centuries of suffering, from slavery to Jim Crow laws and redlining to school segregation.  In 2014 the journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a well-received article in the Atlantic called “The Case for Reparations.”  Since then, many communities, particularly in progressive cities in California, have established task forces to give money to those who are direct descendants of slaves.

            One can understand the reasons behind such payouts.  But it strikes me as extremely difficult to implement in practice.  Who gets paid and how much?  Who pays and how much?  How can money be distributed fairly?  What about people of mixed race?   Should only whites be responsible for the payouts, or should Hispanics and Asian-Americans?  It is exceedingly complicated, but what bothers me most is it divides us up by race.

 If someone says that I should pay out reparations, I would reply that my ancestors never owned slaves.  Slavery was horrible, but in those days my ancestors were not in the United States.  They were struggling with poverty in the shtetls of Europe.  Some would say that ancestry does not matter; I am white and therefore I have the benefit of white privilege.  But to put people in boxes based on issues like race and privilege is extremely problematic.  It is far from Martin Luther King Jr’s vision of judging people “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”

            Should the United States establish reparations for its black citizens?  Nobody can deny the history of wrongs perpetrated on the black community.  But are financial reparations a solution?  Or will such reparations raise more problems than they will solve?  It is a controversial issue.  But the search for justice and finding ways to right past wrongs is always a difficult challenge.  We can only pray that our political leaders handle this issue with great wisdom.