If one is unprotected: a prayer for DC and beyond

As the District of Columbia begins absorbing crowds seeking to engage in “wild protest,” DC’s mayor is asking locals to “stay home” or “stay out of the downtown area.” Community and religious leaders were encouraged to share the “stay home and stay safe” message.

The DC Council’s statement also urges people to avoid protest areas but includes some nuance: “We recognize that downtown is home to residents and businesses whose rights must be respected and protected as we work to keep all safe, including residents who are currently homeless,” they write, asking the mayor and police to prioritize the protection of these groups.

Black Lives Matter-DC, earlier issued a call “asking all DC residents to hold the city officials and businesses accountable” for the failure to oppose white supremacist attacks in November and December. In addition, their statement “also calls upon Black and brown people, if possible, to avoid Trump support rallies and actions. They ask that Black and brown residents stay alert and vigilant during the upcoming white supremacist invasion.” Full statement here —

With these three calls in mind, and in solidarity with religious institutions who are attempting to respond to the threats, I share this prayer. It is based on one from Jewish morning prayers:


Blessed is THE SOURCE OF ALL, who forms humans in wisdom, with possibilities for communication and connection. Before the vastness and weight of THE DIVINE, we recognize and acknowledge essential networks, within us and around. Any disruption or blockage threatens survival and health of the whole.

None of us are free, if one of us is chained.

We are never truly safe, if one is unprotected.

Amid sources of division, keep us mindful of interconnectedness, collective responsibility and strength.

Blessed is THE HEALER and THE SUSTAINER of ALL CONNECTION.

For a more visual presentation, here’s a JPG with the text on a background image of a network, with denser connections at center. Text is identical to that above; image is by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Here’s a PDF with background image and full text for easier sharing.

Psalms for Contemplation

Excited to share news of a new publication, Psalms for Contemplation: Invitation to an Intimate Reading of Selections from 36 Psalms, by Max D. Ticktin (z”l, 1922-2016), edited and introduced by Deborah McCants and Ruth Ticktin. Preface: Rabbi Edward Feld. Poetica Publishing, Dec. 2020.

Video overview of Psalms for Contemplation by Max Ticktin

More about Max Ticktin and the book

Doubled Sacred Space

Sacredness is a tricky concept, made more complicated when a single place or story, concept or ritual is prominent in more than one belief system. Throughout history, conflict around sacred visions has led to much violence. An example is unfolding today in the U.S. capital.

For months now, the District has been home to an informal memorial to individuals killed by police, as well as related artwork and signage in support of Black Lives Matter. Names and pictures of those lost had been posted with loving care over the last five months, and many thousands made pilgrimages, some regularly, over the months.

The weekend of Nov. 13-16, protesters with the #MillionMAGAMarch and related demonstrations destroyed the memorial, while actively disparaging those it honors. This was accomplished with the acquiescence, and sometimes assistance, of DC’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). And this destruction, and MPD’s participation, has been met with silence on the part of DC leaders….and, so far, most of our faith communities as well.

The memorial is under reconstruction….meanwhile, here is (STILL DRAFT) background of the fence, pictures of what happened over Nov. 13-16, and a call to attention and action.

Multiple Folds on BLM Plaza

Conflict over sacred space appears in the story of Abraham, in the Hebrew Bible, seeking a tomb for his deceased wife, Sarah (Gen 23:1ff). The spot he chooses is “Me’arat Ha-machpelah.” Me’arah is a cave (or den). The root — כפל [kaphal] — in Hebrew means “fold” or “double.” Traditional etymology suggests that the cave’s name reflects the burying of couples (Biblically, Sarah and Abraham; Isaac and Rebecca; Jacob and Leah, with Rachel buried elsewhere; Talmud and later text includes Adam and Eve) or that it was composed of two chambers, either side-by-side or an upper and a lower. The doubling, or folding, also appears in other aspects of this story and sheds some light on the BLM memorial conflict.

In the process of negotiating, Abraham declares himself “גר־וְתוֹשב [ger-v’toshav] — “stranger” and “resident” — which is a kind of folding in this one individual’s status. Likewise, DC folks might be residents, on the one hand, and simultaneously strangers in public spaces where we are excluded from full representation; some visitors here for the MAGA events, on the other hand, might be strangers in DC neighborhoods, while simultaneously appearing to feel at home, even proprietary, in public spaces.

Abraham negotiates to purchase the cave and the surrounding land and trees. Eventually, the field and cave are confirmed as Abraham’s, “from the children of Heth.” This transfer results in a kind of double identity: It’s Abraham’s and it’s former Hittite property. A similar pattern shows up in many layers at BLM Plaza: On one level, it’s part of the L’Enfant plan for the U.S. government seat and it’s Anacostan/Piscataway land. On another, it’s District property and a response to the White House. It’s both a mayoral action and the people’s response to that action. The horizontal stripes are part of a DC flag and remnants of an equal sign, simultaneously a city-sanctioned design and a reminder of the guerilla “DEFUND THE POLICE” briefly equated with “BLACK LIVES MATTER.” (“BLACK LIVES MATTER = DEFUND THE POLICE,” lasted a single day before the city repainted.)

Another “doubling” can be seen in the dual nature of the historical Machpelah site (in the city of Hebron): known simultaneously as “Tomb of the Patriarchs” and as “Ibrahimi Mosque,” the site is recognized as sacred to both Jews and Muslims. In a somewhat similar vein, we see several “doublings” of meaning for BLM Plaza and Memorial Fence.

The yellow paint has one meaning for the movement for Black lives and another for DC’s mayor; trying to honor both at once results in serious conflict and insult to one vision or the other: On the one hand, consider again how the predominantly white Nov. 7 celebration was experienced as erasure by BLM supporters; on the other hand, protesters have faced months of police violence, suggesting that the mayor’s vision for BLM Plaza must be something quite different from BLM-led action.

Mayor Bowser has been sued for allowing a “cult for secular humanism” by plaintiffs who argue that the BLM Plaza “equates to endorsing a religion.” Brought by a small group, the suit represents a larger movement, in- and outside of DC, believing the yellow paint a provocation for those who “Back the Blue.” Other “Back the Blue” supporters declare no value in the lives memorialized on the fence, seek to actively erase anything associated with them, and join the current president in treating Black Lives Matter as “terrorists.” They are actively trying to reclaim the space for their vision of the United States.

Abraham negotiates in front of a gathering at the city’s gate. Do we have a “city gate” for considering the BLM Plaza conflict?

Abraham never has to argue for Sarah’s humanity. What does it say about DC and the nation, if we are silent while memorials are dismantled amid calls of “time to take out the trash”?


PS — this was written (and I thought, posted) a few days back; must have failed to hit “publish.” Sorry for delay.

For those so inclined “Protect the Fence” gofundme.

The Scouting Challenge: Facing Race

1

When the Yisrael-ites send out a scouting party from the wilderness (Numbers 13:1), disaster results. After escaping Mitzrayim, the narrow place and over two years in the wilderness, the People are moving ahead and now send out a scouting party — AKA “spies” — to explore their destination. The scouting attempt leads to (Num 14:29):

  • fear of what’s ahead,
  • a desire to go back,
  • an attempt to advance without divine guidance, and
  • finally, realization that an entire generation will die in the wilderness.

One obvious lesson here is that there is a lot to learn about

  • how we look ahead;
  • how we look at what’s behind us;
  • how our individual perspectives shape what we see; and
  • how we organize that information into expectations.

Viewing Peril

Ten of twelve scouts in this week’s Torah reading bring back a set of terrified reports about the destination where they’re supposed to be headed:

The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers…we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.
— Num 13:32-33

Commentary, beginning with the Talmud, notes the subjective nature of the report and the role of assumption:

The spies said: “And we were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so were we in their eyes” (Numbers 13:33). Rav Mesharshiyya says: The spies were liars. Granted, to say: “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes,” is well, but to say: “And so were we in their eyes,” from where could they have known this?
— Babylonian Talmud Sotah 35a

Caleb and Joshua present dissenting views, describing favorable prospects ahead, and then mourn with Moses and Aaron when the People panic at the negative reports (Num 13:30, 14:6-9). Jay Stanton, now assistant clergy at Tzedek Chicago, noted the universal nature of this particular textual “snapshot”:

These words offer a snapshot into human nature. When hearing that a task is difficult, how often do we respond to a challenge by convincing ourselves we are inadequate to the task ahead? This portion plays on universal tendencies to underestimate ourselves and let our worries overtake our reason. It is all too easy to see the courage of Caleb, and yet to identify with the concerns of the ten scouts.

He adds–

The ten scouts are nervous, letting others define them; they have not yet trusted their own definitions for themselves. Caleb, in contrast, is strong and independent, letting no one else define him.
Fear Perception and Imagination: Grasshoppers in Whose Eyes?

Stanton’s 2008 essay focuses on challenges to Queer Jews. His words also describe this moment, as the U.S. tries to envision some sort of racial justice ahead. They also resonate with words on Jews and race from many years ago and from today.

Warnings: Old and New

In 1967, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:

Why is equality so assiduously avoided? Why does white America delude itself, and how does it rationalize the evil it retains?

As the nation passes from opposing extremist behavior to the deeper and more pervasive elements of equality, white America reaffirms its bonds to the status quo.
— “Where Are We?” in Where do We Go from Here?

MLK’s friend, Rabbi Abraham Joshus Heschel, wrote a few years before:

People are increasingly fearful of social tension and disturbance. However, so long as our society is more concerned to prevent racial strife than to prevent humiliation, the cause of strife, its moral status will be depressing, indeed.

There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous. A silent justification, it makes possible an evil erupting as an exception becoming the rule and being in turn accepted.
“Race and Religion” speech, 1963

Earlier this week, a small group of DC Jews, including me, wrote:

Right now is a critical time when the public and decision makers are finally beginning to hear the transformative demands of Black organizers. White people have the opportunity to learn from the vision and work of Black organizers and make sure our actions center their visions, words, demands, and dreams. At the same time, many across our Jewish community are struggling right now to understand what it means to defund or abolish police. Our system of policing is specifically rooted in a history of anti-Black racism. Black people, both within and outside of our Jewish communities, are the experts on what it will take to stop police brutality and end white supremacy. White people in particular need to listen, especially when political messages or proposed policy changes seem new or unfamiliar.

But we must not get stuck in our need for more learning – lest we fail to actually confront police violence and other anti-Black systems and dismantle them. Jewish tradition teaches that we must use ongoing learning and reflection as a catalyst for commitment and action.
Call to Action

An important final note most, given the disaster that resulted from panicking and arguing in the wilderness:

We refuse to be pitted against each other and lose the chance for liberation that this moment offers.

We invite white members of DC Jewish communities (and any member of our community who feels this speaks to them) to commit to this call for action, co-signing the call, and taking at least one action above. Share this call at 615DefundMPD

Wherever You Live…

Some of the specifics, in the letter above, regarding testifying to particular budget hearings are no longer pertinent. The FY21 DC Budget is still under consideration, however, and there is plenty of time to lift more voices to support demands of Black organizers in DC, in- and outside Jewish communities, around new visions of “public safety.”

And, wherever you live, the time is now to take action locally and nationally.

Also, wherever you live, the story of the scouts is a good reminder that we must learn to look more carefully at our past, present, and future. In particular, white people — in- and outside the Jewish community — must learn to face race. To that end, here are some resources on Jews and Racial Justice (soon to be updated).

In closing, a few words from one of my favorite Torah commentaries of all time:

We wander the wilderness. Can we ever remember a time when
it was not so? Always a remnant recounts the story,

The promised land really exists, it really doesn’t, are we
there yet. Borders unspecified, we will know when we’ve
arrived. Profusely fertile, agriculturally a heartland;

An impossible place, let freedom ring in it. We’ve been to
the mountain. We’ve seen the land: A terrain of the
imagination, its hills skipping for joy. How long, we say,
we know our failure in advance, nobody alive will set foot in it
— Alicia Suskin Ostriker. The Nakedness of the Fathers. Rutgers University Press, 1994.




NOTES:
This week’s Torah reading is Shelach Lekha [send out for yourself], Numbers 13:1 – 15:41. Much has been written about this famous story, but I don’t have a particular recommendation. I just discovered, in a possibly related fact, that one of the few times I’ve written about the spies for this log was in a commentary on the next portion, Korach.

The Ostriker poem, quoted above, is part of an essay called “The Nursing Father,” focusing on an image that comes up in the previous portion.
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New Site and Podcasts

This site is already full and too closely resembling my desk in that the organization makes sense only to me and sometimes fails me too. So, I decided there is no room for a set of posts about podcasts and I am using a new site for that: Rereading4liberation.com

Please visit. Subscribe to the podcast on whichever platform you prefer — it’s posted on Anchor.fm but appears on Spotify and many other ways of getting a podcast. Listen and, if you enjoy what you hear, tell others to check it out. thanks!

Rethinking Exodus for Joint Liberation

Update: please visit Rereading4liberation.com where you will find conversations with around related issues and daily podcasts on Rethinking Exodus.

This is an invitation — to Jews, non-Jews, Bible readers and not — to explore some ideas about liberation and join together in figuring out how we are going to get ourselves out of the Narrow Place we’re stuck this year in such a way that we don’t leave our neighbors behind.

Some of us are facing a seriously changed Passover in just a few days and are maybe hearing the story we’re repeated so many times in a new way this year. Some of us only recognize the Exodus story from the movies or general popular culture. Either way, we know that we need a new approach.

This year, more than ever, we have to stop talking in vague terms about joining hands and marching and instead consider

  • Are we prepared to head toward something truly different?
  • Will we let go of what we have in order to get there?
  • With whom have we joined hands?
  • Whom have we left behind?
  • Have we been marching toward a liberation that never seems to materialize for so long that we now wonder if it’s worth the upheaval?

To help us explore these topics, together and individually, please join me in Rereading Exodus for a New Sense of Liberation — a book in progress offered here — and in a new podcast, “Rethinking Exodus for Joint Liberation.” Both resources focus on how the realities in the District of Columbia and the Exodus tale inform one another.

Rethinking Exodus podcast

Brand new, today (March 30): the first episode — about who survives the plagues and how we can try to help each other through this, as well as a few more light-hearted topics — is available now at Rereading4Liberation.com. [This is an update as of April 15. Moving material OFF the former Anchor and podcasting sites for now.]

Rereading Exodus book

This book in progress, delayed by the Rona and other issues, builds on last year’s Exodus and Coalition. Part 2 expected late April.

If reading on laptop or larger device, try two pages side-by-side, as it was laid out for print viewing. If reading on phone, try one page horizontal view.

Rereading Exodus for Liberation (interactive).

Rereading Exodus for Liberation (print) — easier to print.

still working on an epub.

Vayikra, The Rona/COVID-19, and Mutual Aid

We can learn several important things about this time of coronavirus pandemic, and related upheaval, from the start of this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:6).

Honoring Prior Collective Work

The Book of Exodus closes with completion of the mobile worship center, the “Tabernacle,” constructed by the People in the wilderness. This construction takes place over the course of many chapters in Exodus and involves all whose hearts move them” contributing their talents, their time, and their resources (See, e.g., Exodus 25:1ff). It is from within that collectively created Tabernacle that God calls to Moses at the start of the Book Leviticus.**

Similarly, the Torah is calling to us this week (5780/2010) to notice and make use of collectively created structures within our communities, including our Mutual Aid Networks.

Throughout the United States, communities have their own structures and local leaders. Many efforts at dealing with crises do not work within these community structures, however, instead making use of top-down, charity-driven models. Mutual aid, on the other hand, is volunteer-run, transparent, and driven by needs expressed by community members. (See e.g., “What is Mutual Aid.”) Joining up with your area’s Mutual Aid Network, if one exists, is a crucial way to help your area get through this serious upheaval in a way that respects all concerned.

Traditional Jewish teaching suggests that God calls to Moses out of the Tabernacle to emphasize that the structure had been built to benefit the People, not to exclude them (Artscroll Chumash, citing “Ramban, etal” — Ramban is a teacher from 13th Century Spain). In this spirit, we must endeavor to ensure that actions we take around this crisis benefit, rather than exclude, and do not undermine collectively created community structures.

Calling, Learning, and Being Small

Over the centuries, many have noted the oddly tiny final letter (alef) in the first word of the Torah portion —
Vayikra

Teachings around this oddity emphasize the connection between humility – making oneself “small” — and learning.*** In addition, some suggest, we can look at the relative size of the letters, imagining that God’s voice is loud and powerful enough to be heard everywhere but Moses played an important role in conveying it to the People.

In this spirit, the Torah is reminding us to be small enough to listen carefully when called.

That means paying attention to experienced organizers who have direct contact with the communities most affected by this crisis and working with those already in the struggle. This might mean joining a Mutual Aid Network or lending one your support. Or it might mean listening and responding in another way. But it will require listening

A More Specific Call

Many of us have favorite charities and crisis-relief organizations we regularly support. Some would like to offer direct support but know they cannot give to everyone who asks, fear that donations may not be used in an efficient and accountable way, and feel at sea about giving in time of such overwhelming need. This is another area in which using and honoring our existing community structures is crucial.

As a long-time resident of southeast DC, I know the captains of the ward units for Wards 6 and 7/8 within DC’s Mutual Aid Network; I also know the captain for Ward 2 in Northwest and have met the others. I can personally recommend giving these people your time, money, and trust. Probably someone somewhere in your personal contacts knows the people running other units in DC or near where you live. And, if not, I believe Vayikra is telling us, in this specific time, to trust the organizers most closely tied to those most vulnerable in this crisis.

Moreover, in DC government and other institutions are sending those who request help to the Mutual Aid Networks. So, these home-grown efforts need our support right now.

This blog is not set up to provide information on Mutual Aid Networks everywhere. But it is set up to suggest that Jews, and others interested in a text- and action-based view of Bible study, look at what Vayikra is telling us about seeking out and supporting existing community structures.

Just one Example

Mutual Aid Networks are growing in many areas, and, as noted, this blog is not set up to keep on top of them all. Please seek out your local area MAN. As an example for readers anywhere, and for readers local to DC, here are some direct requests from local organizers.

Needs identified include the usual: fruit and vegetables, bread, toilet paper, sandwich meat, snacks, bottled water, frozen meats, potatoes, rice, hot dogs, buns, diapers, pull-ups, wipes, bleach, rubbing alcohol, gloves — basically, every item that you purchased for yourself and your household.

In addition, community members in the District express needs for

  • computers
  • materials needed by children and teens for their educations.

These resources are taken for granted in some areas but sorely lacking in others. Accessible and free access to the internet is also needed — and financial contributions toward that goal are welcome.

In or near DC’s Ward 6, drop items off at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE, 9am-9pm. Additional sites are in the works.

Financial donations can be made earmarked for “Mutual Aid Network” to Serve Your City DC.

Contact ward6mutualaid@gmail.com or 202-683-9962 with questions or for updates on sites in other areas of Ward 6.

NOTES
**

And he called to Moses, and YHVH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting…
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר
— Lev 1:1

It is clear that the “he” (in “(and) he called”) is God calling from inside the Tent of Meeting, which was just completed at the end of the Book of Exodus. The verse is usually rendered something like “And the LORD called to Moses.” The portion, the first in Leviticus, is comprised of Leviticus 1:1-5:6.

TOP

***
The Hebrew word “ileif” —
אִלֵּף

has the same root letters as “alef

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Gathering Sources: Mishpatim

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Mishpatim, Exodus 21:1-24:18. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Something to Notice: Torn foodstuff

Great Source(s): Wandering Asses

Language and Translation: What should not be done to a ger

A path to follow: Do and Say

See also
One Woman’s Conclusion
Pavement of Sapphire Below, Consuming Fire Above

Mishpatim is next read in the Diaspora minchah Feb 15 through Shabbat February 22.

Mishpatim: Pavement of Sapphire Below, Consuming Fire Above

“Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended; and they saw the God of Israel: under his feet there was the likeness of a pavement of sapphire, like the very sky for purity. Yet He did not raise His hand against the leaders of the Israelites; they beheld God, and they ate and drank….the cloud covered the mountain….Now the Presence of the LORD appeared in the sight of the Israelites as a consuming fire on the top of the mountain. Moses went inside the cloud and ascended the mountain; and Moses remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights.”
–Exodus 24:9-18, parashat Mishpatim

ZachLynch_Mishpatim

Multi-media work by Zachary L. Very Special Arts-DC ARTiculate Program. June 2011. NOTE: viewers can see themselves in the reflective surface atop the mountain.

Zachary L. was called to the Torah as a bar mitzvah on Shabbat Mishpatim 5771 (Jan 29, 2011). His Torah reading included the verses above. A skilled artist, Zach extended his learning by using images from the Torah portion to complete a multi-media work, “Mt. Sinai.” This new visual midrash, commissioned by and installed at Temple Micah (DC), was created through the ARTiculate Studio of Very Special Arts-DC.

ARTiculate

VSA Washington D.C. was launched in 1981 and forced to close, due to financial difficulties, in 2011. It was a community-based non-profit developing, implementing and supporting arts-integrated education and employment programs for youth and adults with special needs. VSA-DC was a local affiliate of “Very Special Arts: the International Organization on Arts and Disability,” founded 40 years ago by Ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith.

Along with a gallery, an arts-based charter school and other programs, VSA-DC offered “ARTiculate,” designed to help individuals with disabilities or other disadvantages develop vocational, social and life-management skills. ARTiculate worked to increase participants’ independence, productivity and inclusion into their communities through creative learning activities that integrate adult education with art experiences.

Gathering Sources: Yitro

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Yitro, Exodus 18:1-20:23. Alternative spellings include Yithro and Yisro. (Wikipedia also lists “Yisroi” and “Yisrau” as possibilities.)

This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Something to Notice: Witnessing thunder

Great Source(s): Sefer Ha-Aggadah

Language and Translation: Pronoun scope

A Path to Follow: Zipporah

See also Yitro, for something completely different

Yitro is next read in the Diaspora, minchah Feb 8 through Shabbat Feb 15.

433px-Jacob_Jordaens_-_Moses_and_his_Ethiopian_wife_Sephora

Moses and his Ethiopian wife Sephora (Mozes en zijn Ethiopische vrouw Sippora). Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650. Public Domain

Painting: Jacob Jordaens, ca 1650. Public Domain