Talmud this Shabbat: Now We Get to Be Egyptians!

Albert Einstein escaped Germany just in time–one month before Hitler became chancellor. He and his wife Elsa settled in Princeton, New Jersey, where he was a professor. In Caste, Isabel Wilkerson tells the following story:

A few years into his tenure, the opera singer Marian Anderson, a renowned contralto born to the subordinated caste, performed to an overflow crowd at McCarter Theatre in Princeton and to rapturous praise in the press of her “complete mastery of a magnificent voice.” But the Nassau Inn in Princeton refused to rent a room to her for the night. Einstein, learning of this, invited her to stay in his home. From then on, she would stay at the Einstein residence whenever she was in town, even after Princeton hotels began accepting African-American guests. They would remain friends until his death.

“Being a Jew myself, perhaps I can understand and empathize with how black people feel as victims of discrimination,” he told a family friend. (pages 378-9).

I was thinking of this story in connection with our Torah reading this week, which embodies the antithesis of the Einstein move.

The Einstein move is: I saw discrimination first-hand, therefore I will be intentional about not discriminating, and will resist discrimination wherever I can. The Torah this week does just the opposite.

The First Commandment at Sinai is: “I the Lord am your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” (Ex. 20:1)

We might think that the Israelites would channel God’s spirit as liberator from oppression to build a society without slavery. But, to the contrary, the very first law after Sinai is: “When you acquire a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years; in the seventh year he shall go free, without payment.” (Ex. 21:2)

In other words, the Israelites leave the original caste system only to reenact a new caste system, where some Israelites get to own other Israelites. About this, we will explore four questions.

What does this say about human nature?

Is it a problem, or not a problem?

What is a contemporary illustration of this same phenomenon?

If we see it as a problem, what do we do about it?

It is surely sobering that our first move after slavery is to reenact it.

The texts are attached here.