By Liya Rechtman
Originally published in the Washington Jewish Week
February marks Black History Month, an opportunity to learn about and share African-American history. Further, Black History Month is a moment to consider where we, as a Jewish and an American community, can continue pursuing racial justice in the coming year.
In the first week of Black History Month, we read Parshat Mishpatim, from the Book of Exodus. Mishpatim is the oldest stratum of Torah (famously parallel to the Code of Hammurabi). The portion expounds on the earliest Jewish laws, including how and when to set both Israelite and non-Israelite slaves free. In some ways, this is one of those sticky portions that uncomfortably remind us that our tradition was part of the historic system of slavery. However, read an alternate way, the section of Mishpatim grappling with slavery insists on treating disempowered slaves as humans, also created in the Divine Image. Mishpatim is a mandate to act with respect and dignity to all.
What does this mean in 2016? In the age of rising rates of asthma and cancer among black Americans, as well as unequal impacts of extreme weather disasters on communities of color, the fight for racial justice is multi-faceted. Climate change is a racial justice issue, and, as Jews of all colors, we must advocate for climate justice.