What Serendipity (and Black and Jewish Culture) May Teach Us About Slavery as a Mindset
President Barack Obama hugs Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. after his introduction during the event to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday and the Selma to Montgomery civil rights marches, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., March 7, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) This official White House photograph is being made available only for publication by news organizations and/or for personal use printing by the subject(s) of the photograph. The photograph may not be manipulated in any way and may not be used in commercial or political materials, advertisements, emails, products, promotions that in any way suggests approval or endorsement of the President, the First Family, or the White House.

What Serendipity (and Black and Jewish Culture) May Teach Us About Slavery as a Mindset

Joe Biden’s speech last month, staged in the City of Brotherly Love, was reminiscent of a speech delivered in the spring of 2008 by Barack Obama, also set in Philadelphia and just eight months prior to being elected president. Obama’s now famous “A More Perfect Union” speech, was given on March 18th, 2008.  On that very same day on the other side of the Atlantic, Angela Merkel became the very first leader of Germany, invited to address the Israeli Knesset. It was just 60 years after the birth of Israel as a nation and 63 years after the liberation of the German Holocaust against European Jewry.  Are there lessons to be gleaned from these two rather profound historical moments aligning on the same day?  

The catalyst for Obama’s speech came about, through the controversy brewing over his association with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, his personal pastor, teacher and friend. The big media story du jour, which at the time was threatening Obama’s campaign, was circulating in endless reruns of Rev. Wright’s racially-charged sermons.  His fire and brimstone speeches, directed at the U.S. government and “the white man”, forced Sen. Obama into a corner.  His “A More Perfect Union” speech was a direct response to what was seriously threatening his campaign and he was aware that this was a make or break moment. It was from this moment going forward, that Obama distanced himself and cut ties with his longtime pastor.  He categorically denounced any statements that “disparaged our great country” and also stated that certain words which “degrade and divide us have no place in public dialogue”. Most political experts claim, that speech saved his candidacy. 

Seven members (out of 120) of the Knesset walked out in protest of Angela Merkel’s invitation to speak that day.  Here in the U.S., one could draw a parallel comparison that Rev. Wright’s personal history, as a person of color, was tragically impacted by personally bearing witness to the horrors of lynchings and murderous atrocities on his ancestors and friends. Though colors and cultures may be different between Blacks in America and Jews in Israel, clearly trauma and genocide can be seen through the same lens. What fed the racist, hateful rhetoric that Rev. Wright expresses, comes from hundreds of years of pain, anger and oppression. The seven Knesset members, being absent from Angela Merkel’s speech, demonstrates the pain and anger that still exists 70 years after WW II.  The work continues on healing and transforming the pain from the holocaust, slavery and oppression. There have been studies that indicate that it can take as much as seven generations for trauma to be completely healed in our DNA. 

What to learn from Obama’s choice in distancing himself from Rev. Wright, as well the 113 Knesset members who welcomed Angela Merkel…each, standing at such a profound intersection in history?

The resounding message in their choices was in telling the world: It’s time to turn the page on that chapter of our history.  Their message: While we cannot forget, we must move forward from a place of forgiveness.  It’s time to let go of our burden and look forward rather than backwards. This is where the rubber meets the road regarding the commandment to choose life.

What changed at that historic moment is profound, given the parallels presented to these two peoples, burying the pain of the past in order to capture the present and future opportunities. Slavery defines so much of both the Black and the Jewish narrative. But slavery can become a mindset. Awareness of getting stuck in such a mindset, is the 1st step towards true freedom.  Yes, in the case of Rev. Wright and the protesting Knesset members, anger and the inability to move forward are very real aspects of a process where wounds run so deep.

There is a popular theory that grief has five stages that most will typically move through. Denial, anger, and depression are the first stages. When the trauma, woundedness, and heartbreak are so deep, people can get stuck here.  This is why doing grief work is so very important when experiencing loss or trauma.

The biblical story of the Jewish people enslaved in Egypt, perhaps the first documented story of slavery, provides insight into the process of healing from such wounds.  Forty years wandering in the desert (before being allowed to enter the land promised to them), where a deeply wounded generation carrying the pain and oppression of their enslavement had to literally die off.  This wandering was necessary in order for the first generation to go through the initial stages of grief and for a new generation, born in the desert, to emerge and realize their ultimate redemption, based in acceptance…where leaving their history and the baggage from Egypt behind was necessary.

A new generation emerges, free from that visceral trauma perpetrated upon them by enslavement and oppression. Faith and open, healed hearts can now see forward to future possibilities. Without acceptance, there can be no real forgiveness. Life experience is often the best method for learning and growth.  The Black and Jewish communities therefore possess a uniquely, though extremely painful skill-set for teaching.

Barack Obama and the remaining 113 Knesset members (94%), mostly made up of second and third generation Holocaust survivors, were faced with a choice. Their clear choice was a resounding Yes AND!  Yes, never forget. Atrocities are real, and grief and anger are real, necessary, and productive emotions… AND, they have a statute of limitations. AND forgiveness bores compassion, AND today is a new day. AND hope is alive and well and will always be a work in progress. This is who we are and what we’re now committing to for the sake of our collective healing and choosing life.

Mourning is delineated through a time-bound ritual in the Jewish tradition. One week, one month, and one year. Each phase or period is meant to inch our way, a step at a time, back into wholeness and able to embrace life again. The ideal would be to move through most of the grief stages, over the course of that year, arriving at acceptance and forgiveness. As per the above inference, that could be rather impossible given the depth of trauma and suffering.  Yet, the process of intergenerational healing becomes a responsibility of those stepping up to take the baton, as President Obama and the welcoming Knesset members did.  When the “pain-body”, a term coined by Eckhart Tolle, referring to old emotional pain that is carried around inside a person, continues to control one’s thinking, becomes inescapable, then the next generation inherits the “work”.

Both Obama and Biden aptly chose Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love” and it’s symbol of freedom to stage their speeches and get us back on a track towards unity. Polarity, separateness and division is not our innate default. We must drop that mantra and return to believing we can heal that which only appears to separate us.

Hurt people, hurt people
that’s how pain patterns get passed on,
generation after generation after generation.
Break the chain today
Meet anger with sympathy
contempt with compassion,
Cruelty with kindness
Forgive and forget about finding fault
Love is the weapon of the future.

– Yehuda Berg

Inspired by and in honor of the late Rep. John Lewis who truly walked (and rode) the walk!

About Gary Kornfeld

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  1. I appreciate this article. But it also seems to be saying that the Black suffering is the United States is only in the past. Were that to be the case, I think so much of this applies. You write, "A new generation emerges, free from that visceral trauma perpetrated upon them by enslavement and oppression." But the current generation of Black Americans isn't free from oppression. It's alive and real and present today.

    • Gary Avraham Kornfeld

      Thanks for taking the time to read this Becky. I have some clarifying thoughts in response to your comments and will get back on after Shabbat. Shabbat shalom!

  2. Excellent piece, Avraham. Eloquent and to the point. Thank you!

  3. The intention of the article was in reflecting on our own individual challenges with a slavery mindset and what Obama and the Knesset teach us regarding moving beyond that which may enslave us. That being said, in response to what you address Becky, I believe the oppression of today, is a different form of oppression from the one’s in decades past through slavery and the holocaust, where an embedded slavery mindset is quite impossible to avoid. Most certainly, today’s oppression must be addressed, stood up to and defeated in the here and now. By no means am I negating that oppression and racism, as well as anti-semitism, is alive and well. I also do not turn a blind eye to the progress that has been made as a result of laws implemented, cultural shifts and through the evolution of the heart of humanity. Yes, history and our stories are important and necessarily to inform our growth. Black History Month, Yom Hashoah, the Passover seder…these structured containers provide the opportunity to revisit our stories with the objective of learning, growing and moving forward. Learning from and transforming the pain into purpose and meaning. Ultimately, it’s about not allowing ourselves to be defined by our story. To quote Dr. Joe Dispenza, “how long are you going to remain stuck in your story?” He teaches that, the more we remember/recall the event, the more we condition our body and trauma further into the past (I believe many holocaust survivors held an innate wisdom of this, which is why many were known never to talk about their experience). Anything which remotely resembles one’s past trauma, when we don’t move beyond and heal our past, triggers our emotions and puts us back into the past. We’re overlaying the memory of the experience and it’s no longer conscious. The lens by which we are perceiving reality becomes distorted. Everyone that remotely resembles that association with the past, can’t be trusted, everyone is a betrayer(all Germans are nazis, all whites are racists, all….). May we all help guide one another towards healing and freedom.