“When do we eat?” is often identified as the fifth question at the Passover seder, after the prescribed four about dipping and reclining, bitter herbs and unleavened bread. Just as often, in my experience, people are asking about two Hebrew words that look identical in English transliteration: ‘oved‘ meaning ‘slave’ and ‘oved‘ in the phrase […]
Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt? April 22, 1968 was the original launch date for the Poor People’s Campaign. As we approach the beginning of Passover, on April 22, 2016, the very basic demands of 1968 have yet to materialize. Can your seder, or your Passover week, include some moments to reflect on how […]
It is time to re-order our national priorities. All those who now speak of good will and praise the work of such groups as the President’s Commission* now have the responsibility to stand up and act for the social changes that are necessary to conquer racism in America. If we as a society fail, I […]
“Claiming the center stage, just like Pharaoh and Caesar did in their time, has always been a blasphemous overreach that actually places oneself on the margins of God’s reign,” thus writes Drew G.I. Hart in Trouble I’ve Seen. This new title focuses on “Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism,” but much of what Hart […]
“God has declared a state of moral emergency,” writes Rabbi David Kasher in his commentary on this week’s Torah portion.
Kasher points out that a command to care for the poor suddenly appears in the midst of a portion otherwise dedicated to ritual matters stressing holiday observances, and comments:
Mind you, everybody agrees that charity is good and just. Everybody recognizes that feeding the hungry is a wonderfully noble thing to do. But, they think, nobody can be forced to do it. And so, in time, nobody does it. People speak of poverty with eloquence and compassion, but nobody actually gives to the poor.
It is a situation reminiscent of words written by another great 20th-century rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram he sent to President Kennedy, in the midst of the civil rights movement of the 1960s:
I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow at 4pm. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare a state of moral emergency.
Everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it. Racism, like poverty, is one of those social ills we can condemn with our reason, but leave completely unattended by our laws. We build up a great society, so orderly and so civilized… but the most vulnerable are left to fend for themselves.
This is what the Meshech Chochmah was worried about when he warned of the savage beast that we could too easily become. That is why he believed that we needed God to help us turn charity from an option into an obligation. Heschel, too, saw religious faith as a force for compelling social action, and the worship of God as all bound up in the preservation of human dignity.
— R. David Kasher, “State of Grace”
Read the whole commentary at ParshaNUT
And we might also call to mind the way Algren closes the 1961 addendum to Chicago: City on the Make (discussed yesterday and “beyond 23”):
For the  essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present revolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption.
— Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make, p.105
Thanks to Rabbi Alana Suskin for sharing the link above.
We counted 34 on the evening of May 7. Tonight, we count….
Three days into the wilderness journey, the promise of freedom seems to fade —
וְלֹא יָכְלוּ לִשְׁתֹּת מַיִם מִמָּרָה
כִּי מָרִים הֵם
they could not drink of the waters of Marah,
for they were bitter [the waters? or the People?]
— Exodus 15:23
Despite their recent experiences of leaving bondage and the miraculous, sea-splitting escape from Pharaoh’s army, the Israelites encounter bitterness and are unable to drink.
“Water,” according to Jewish tradition, is linked symbolically with “Torah.” The Israelites’ real problem, therefore, is interpreted as “growing weary” because they “went for three days without Torah.”
The ancient teachers used this story as an explanation for the public Torah reading schedule: Saturdays, Mondays, and Thursdays. In this way, the People “will never go on for three consecutive days without hearing Torah.” In addition, the minimum number of verses for a reading was set at ten, corresponding to the number of people needed to constitute a minyan [public prayer quorum]. (Babylonian Talmud: Baba Kama 82a)
At heart, the message seems to be that we must never drift too long without returning to the Source, however we understand that, and that community is essential in this process.
Nina Simone’s song, “(I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be) Free,” helps me with this “return,” in general, and suggests several lessons for this particular omer journey. There are several wonderful versions, each with its own lessons.
(1) Warning: Most Basic Torah
In her “Live in Montreux 1976” version, Simone pounds out a warning, adding a line not in the usual lyrics:
I wish you could know what it means to be me
If you could see, you’d agree
everybody should be free
’cause if we ain’t we’re murderous
— Live at Montreux 1976, this quote at 2:45ff
(link to clip or whole concert)
The demands here — “see me” and “everybody should be free” — are a call to return to the Source, to the most basic Torah: “I am YHVH thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)
(2) I’d Sing What I Know
This 1968 version, live in Paris —
— stresses “I’d sing what I know.”
This call to learn from — and to share — the direct experiences of people who have suffered oppression is especially apt for this year’s attempt to “Make the Omer Count,” exploring the workings of oppression, and our part in them, with an aim to more effectively move toward liberation for all.
Moreover, Simone urges listeners to participate in a way that echoes for me the rabbis’ embedding of the communal number ten in the Torah reading (above): The artist wants to hear others singing “what I know,” and doesn’t give up when they don’t immediately sing out. At one point she asks band members, “Should I leave ’em alone?” — to which they answer an amused “no!” without missing a beat of their choral response. Still not hearing from enough others, Simone leaves the piano and adds additional verbal and visual cues to facilitate participation.
Finally, I am moved by her addition toward the close of “I’d be a little bit more me.” To me that about sums it up: the journey from Passover to Shavuot is one that is meant to help us each become “a little bit more me,” in our liberation, while striving for a community that honors the need for everyone else to be their own best selves.
(3) An Anthem Toward…
Several years ago, Elaine Reuben suggested this song as “an appropriate anthem as we count our way toward…” to Fabrangen Havurah‘s Omer Blog). And yes, that’s “toward…” with destination unexpressed, not “forward,” regardless of spellcheck preferences.
The 1967 version, used in the posthumous compilation “The Very Best of Nina Simone” and linked in Fabrangen’s 2010 blog above, is shared without video of the artist. A straight-forward studio version, this rendition serves especially well as “an anthem” in which each of us can join.
This version and Elaine’s “as we count our way toward…” seem apt for this omer journey, with its unknown destination. Of course, we expect to reach 49 and then the holiday of Shavuot. But, our learning about oppression and its workings will be informing where we end up ultimately.
NOTE: In 2013, the Simone estate uploaded an amazing array of resources, including the clip in #2 above, the full concert linked in #1 above, interviews, and more. For more on Nina Simone, visit the website maintained by her estate.