By Rabbi Abe Friedman
Last week I had the privilege of traveling with two of my uncles to Mobile, Ala., where they and my father grew up. My eldest daughter came along and, on our drive from Atlanta, we stopped in Montgomery at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.
The memorial, which opened less than a year ago, is “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence.”
I was almost completely unprepared for the experience of visiting the memorial. We entered through a dark, enclosed passage. The first path led up a gentle hill past engravings detailing the history of slavery and racism in 19th-century America and a gut-wrenching sculpture of slaves — men, women and babies — being brought in chains to market.
The memorial itself began at the top of the hill: a house-shaped structure filled with 800 rust-brown iron blocks, each representing a county where a racial terror lynching occurred, listing the names and dates of death for each victim. At first you walk among the blocks, but the floor slopes downward and soon the memorial blocks — each of which are hung at the same height — begin to separate from the floor.
Halfway through the memorial, the iron blocks tower overhead, too high to read the names inscribed. Suspended together in neat, orderly rows, they evoke the stomach-churning image of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit:”
Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Emerging from the memorial, you encounter an open field lined with 800 more iron blocks: exact replicas, lined up county by county, waiting for local communities to collect them and set up their own memorial in the counties where these murders took place. Walking along the line of blocks for Georgia, I found Fulton County, where I grew up — and saw that the list of names ran so long they needed to use a smaller typeface and lay the names out in two columns, side by side. I called my daughter over and we stood there in silent witness.
It actually feels quite easy for me to convey the emotions I felt: It felt the same for me as visiting a memorial for the Shoah — with a few critical differences.
Unlike the Shoah, the suffering depicted in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice did not happen to my people. Moreover, it was perpetrated by people who look like me, and entrenched a system of racial preference that continues to this day — and from which I cannot help but benefit. And all of it, the slavery, the racial terror, the ongoing mass incarceration, happened in places I have called home.
This week, reading Parshat Mishpatim, I am puzzled. Right in the middle of Exodus, the Torah abruptly shifts from a spiritual theme of liberation and covenant to a lightly organized collection of civil, criminal and administrative laws. Why the sudden change in focus?
The Hebrew word mishpat can mean law or judgment; it can also refer to the institution of justice in general. But a second meaning exists as well: mishpat as the attribute of a judge or ruler — or a society — who acts justly.
Throughout the Bible, mishpat, justice, appears alongside tzedek, righteousness. These two qualities are intrinsically linked: We can only claim true righteousness if we have assured fair and equitable justice for all. As the prophet Isaiah offers in his vision of redemption: “Then justice [mishpat] shall abide in the wilderness, and righteousness [tzedek] shall dwell on the farm land; for the work of righteousness shall be peace, and the effect of righteousness, calm and confidence forever” (Isaiah 32:16-17).
Herein lies the secret of Parashat Mishpatim. Rather than seeing it as a shift away from the theme of religious covenant, we must understand it as an instruction manual for how we secure that covenant: through rituals and holidays, yes, but also through our caring for the widow, orphan and stranger, for all those who have been overlooked, neglected, sidelined.
I have always felt proud of our country, blessed to be born in a nation founded upon ideals of “liberty and justice for all.” My visit to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice brought home how much work remains before we might achieve those goals.
On our return trip, we stopped again in Montgomery, this time at the Civil Rights Memorial outside the Southern Poverty Law Center. Quoting words that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., adapted from the prophet Amos, that memorial reminds us that our shared labor will continue “until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
Rabbi Abe Friedman is the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel in Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.