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.

Until Oppression Stays Behind

Getting out of biblical Egypt is the climax of an epic drama full of promises, plagues, and politics. And we sometimes think of escape from Mitzraim as definitive and final:

Oppression behind us;
freedom ahead;
halleluyah!
(On Passover: “Let’s eat.”)

Leaving Mitzraim, however, isn’t just moments of triumph and release: It’s a long, messy, frequently discouraging process.


—– SPOILER ALERT:
After the initial drama, the people spend 27 more chapters of Exodus, followed by Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy, in the wilderness; the Torah closes, forty years on, with an entire generation having perished on the journey and a river still to cross. —–


Truly seeing ourselves, individually, as “personally coming forth from Egypt” (Pes 116b) means embracing the whole story. Engaging with its complexities can also help us in communal and public approaches.

Leaving Mitzraim

Exodus, and the Passover experience, can appear as modeling a violent parting of oppressor and oppressed peoples. Centuries of commentary offer additional, sometimes quite different, perspectives, however. Shifting our views can serve us in many ways.

The Exodus is defining for Jews. It’s crucial in other faith traditions, including Christianity and Rastafari, and an important literary theme, in- and outside religious contexts. Exodus has also played key roles in U.S. political philosophy, from early colonial ideas to the 20th Century Civil Rights movement and beyond. In particular, the Exodus story is regularly employed to highlight shared values and promote coalition across Jewish and Black communities.

Some uses of the Exodus story have become frozen and no longer serve us well. Shifting some of these conversations is imperative if we are to escape today’s Mitzraim. This book seeks to highlight views of Exodus that can inspire fresh community and coalition building for our day.

Michael Walzer’s 1986 Exodus and Revolution concludes with this now oft-quoted adage about the three-fold Exodus message:

First, wherever you are, it is probably Egypt.
Second, that there is a better place,
a world more attractive, a promised land;
and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness.
There is no way to get from here to there
except by joining together and marching.

The image of “joining together and marching” toward that “better place” has inspired and comforted many. But that imagery can also lull us into thinking that we are marching toward equality and justice, when, instead, we’re dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us.

A more apt characterization, at this point, might be that we are a conflicted people with a history of marching, sometimes ineffectively, toward a liberation that hasn’t yet materialized for all concerned. It’s time we re-examined our basic assumptions and listened more carefully to others on this journey.

As SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva teaches, we can abandon a foundational story that is no longer working for us, we can deny there is any problem, or we can dig deeper and transform the old story.

This book represents an attempt to look deeper into the Exodus story, seeking a shift of perspective that will help us tell a story in which, finally, we’re all free — or at least headed together, respectfully, in a positive direction.


After Mitzraim

Following the tenth plague, hurried departure preparations, and the break in narrative to describe the Passover ritual, we read in this week’s Torah portion:

When Pharaoh sent the people out, God did not lead them by the nearer route, for God said: “Lest the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.” So God led the people round-about, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds….
And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him; for he had extracted a vow from the Children of Israel, saying: “God will surely remember you; and you shall carry up my bones with you.”
— Exodus 13:17-19

Here we are, embarking on our journey into new-found freedom….

…And we’re on a roundabout route to avoid fear of potential conflict which might tempt us to turn back.

…We’re carting along old bones, honoring a vow made generations earlier, back when the old Pharoah still knew our ancestor Joseph, then a highly-placed administrator in Egyptian government (Gen 50:24-26 and Ex 1:8).

…And then, as if to underscore the illusory nature of our escape, we are once again trapped in a deadly power struggle, Mitzraim’s army behind us and the Sea of Reeds ahead (Ex 14:1ff).

The portion continues, of course, with God helping Moses to part the waters, the escaping people marching “into the sea on dry ground,” the sea “coming back upon” the pursuing chariots and riders, and, finally, the celebratory dance and Song of the Sea (Exodus 14 and 15).

The Song of the Sea has long been part of Jewish liturgy, as have psalms that celebrate coming out of Mitzraim (Ps. 113-118, sometimes called “Egyptian Hallel”). Celebratory Exodus themes are part of many other moments in the daily, Shabbat and Festival prayers, as well as Passover. But Jewish tradition has always included the bitter along with the sweet and asked us to incorporate alternative understandings into our readings and practice.

  • What can we learn by pausing to explore this precarious spot at the start of our freedom journey?
  • Whose old bones are we carrying? which historical relationships continue to influence our decisions? can acknowledging what we carry help us move forward?
  • Is fear of conflict warping our path? are there (still) good reasons for avoiding the more direct route?

Rereading Exodus

This post is the new introduction to Until Oppression Stays Behind: Rereading Exodus toward more just and inclusive community building. Until Oppression Stays Behind is the promised redraft of last year’s “Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption,” released as a sort of beta-test publication before Passover 2019. See “Coalition and Redemption” for details and to download or order a print copy.

Comments on the beta publication are most welcome.
Also seeking essays, sermons, or other thoughts — from Jews and non-Jews — for Until Oppression Stays Behind.
Contact songeveryday at gmail.

NOTES

מצרים/Mitzraim is biblical Egypt. Using “Mitzraim” to distinguish
the place of biblical story from any actual country, ancient or contemporary.

צַר — The Hebrew “tzar” means “narrow.” The plural “tzarim” = “narrow straits.” The Zohar (mystical work, 13th Century Spain) thus suggests that Exodus is about God bringing us out of our own “narrow places” including constricted opportunities and narrow-mindedness.

See, e.g., “Liberating Ourselves from Narrowness,” by Lesli Koppelman Ross at My Jewish Learning
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בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
שנאמר והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמר בעבור זה עשה ה׳ לי בצאתי ממצרים

In each and every generation, a person must see themself as personally coming forth from Mitzraim. As it is said: “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying: It is because of what YHVH did for me when I came forth out of Mitzraim.
— Mishnah Pesachim 10:5-6/Pes 116b
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Coalition and Redemption

1

What does change taste like?

How do we know whether we’re really getting out of that narrow place of servitude or just dragging the whole of that mythical Egypt with us but calling it change? This year, approach Passover with some new imagery, focusing on how we build coalition and move together toward redemption. It starts, this short book suggests, in being honest about how the “millstone that is Egypt” affects different populations differently: In the fight for racial justice in the U.S., we are NOT all marching together from the same starting point — that millstone has been weighing differently on Black and brown and white populations for many decades.

Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption focuses on what it means to leave a place, people, or ideas behind and head out toward something that works better for everyone. It is meant to prompt some new thinking, particularly around racial justice issues.

A PDF download is available here, free of charge. UPDATE: Print copies are now available (See below). If you are able to contribute to the cost of this project, please consider doing so through the “A Song Every Day” Support link.

The book will be challenging to some for different reasons. It was challenging to me for many reasons, too. I am still considering this a BETA version with the hope that a fuller work, including additional perspectives, will develop in time. Comments and suggestions are welcome.

Some Essential Connections and Thanks

Thanks to Rabbi Gerry Serotta, director of the Interfaith Council of Greater Washington, for much support and teaching over the years and, in particular, for encouragement and ideas that helped shape this project. Thanks to Norman Shore, independent teacher of Torah in the DC area, for his support and teaching over many years and, in particular, for encouragement and corrections as my thinking evolved on the blog, “A Song Every Day.” Thanks to Rabbi Hannah Spiro, of Hill Havurah, for her enthusiasm and detailed comments on an earlier version.

Thanks also to Barbara Green, Bob Rovinksy, Norman Shore, and others who have supported “A Song Every Day” financially. And thanks to readers of earlier versions for comments and corrections and to those who contributed thoughts over the years, on the blog and via Facebook or other platform, on related topics.

I am also deeply appreciative of the work of every author quoted here, living or not. I am in particular dept to Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Trible, Galit Hasan-Rokem, Rabbi Shais Rishon (MaNishtana), and Marc Dollinger. I am also grateful to DC’s Cross-River (Black-Jewish) Dialogue for helping hone my thinking.

All errors of interpretation, spelling or grammar, or any other kind are mine.

ORDERING AND DOWNLOAD

Download Exodus and Exile: Thoughts on Coalition and Redemption. (PDF HERE)

Print copies are available for a contribution of $6 or more, to help defray printing and other hard costs. Please use Support link and be sure to include your postal address. If your synagogue or other group would like multiple copies, please contact me — songeveryday (at) gmail(dot)com.

NEW VERSION COMING SOON.

The House and First Fruits

The Mishnah reports that Psalm 30, or at least its opening verse, was recited by the Levites when worshippers brought First Fruits:

THE FLUTE WAS PLAYING BEFORE THEM TILL THEY REACHED THE TEMPLE MOUNT; AND WHEN THEY REACHED THE TEMPLE MOUNT EVEN KING AGRIPPA WOULD TAKE THE BASKET AND PLACE IT ON HIS SHOULDER AND WALK AS FAR AS THE TEMPLE COURT. AT THE APPROACH TO THE COURT, THE LEVITES WOULD SING THE SONG: ‘I WILL EXTOL THEE, O LORD, FOR THOU HAST RAISED ME UP, AND HAST NOT SUFFERED MINE ENEMIES TO REJOICE OVER ME’.
— Bikkurim 3:4
[not meant as shouting: all caps printers’ custom distinguishes Mishnah from Gemara]

The First Fruits ceremony also included the recitation beginning “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deut 26:5-10) now included in the Passover Haggadah (Bikkurim 3:6). This passage recalls years of affliction and oppression before getting to “Now I bring the first fruits of the soil which You, God, have given me.” Together with Psalm 30, these verses convey the theme that all wealth, success, and well-being come from God.

Together, the “Wandering Aramean” passage and Psalm 30 warn against the kind of complacency described in Ps 30:7: “When I was well, I said, ‘Never will I falter.'” They also convey the theme that struggle, too, is part of relationship with God.

Struggle and God

Sometimes, as in the Pesach recitation, we relate what sounds like a positive conclusion to troubles that were part of a divine plan. And, in the context of First Fruits, Psalm 30 also rings a note of ultimate triumph and praise, concluding with “I will praise You forever.”

In the language of Psalm 30, however, we see at least three models of suffering and response: First, God assists before any call; next, suffering and joy are entwined in a regular cycle; finally, the psalmist calls out and God responds:

  1. I extol You, GOD,
    for you have lifted me up,
    and not let my enemies rejoice over me. (30:1)
  2. …One may lie down weeping at nightfall;
    but at dawn there are shouts of joy. (30:5)
  3. …When You hid Your face, I was terrified.
    I called to You, GOD; to My Lord I made appeal….
    You turned my lament into dancing…(30:8-12)

In the third example, “You hid Your face” is sometimes understood as intentional on God’s part and sometimes opaque, best:

God’s presence is very reassuring, while God’s absence creates panic. The psalmist shares the biblical idea that God sometimes “hides His face” from us….This hiding of God’s face may result from human misbehavior, but equally, God sometimes hides His face for no clear reason at all and needs to be “called back.”
My People’s Prayer Book, p.195 (full citation)

In the context of the morning liturgy, any triumph over anxiety and suffering seems very fragile. We’ll be back at this spot tomorrow morning — not unlike Bill Murray repeating Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993). And, in the end, this is not all that different from the recitation at First Fruits and Pesach, with its seemingly triumphant conclusion. After all, a good harvest is never guaranteed, and at least some portion of the Jewish people will likely be at a seder table again next year.

fruits market

Photo by Tookapic on Pexels.com

8 of Thirty on Psalm 30

As a National Novel Writing Month Rebel, I write each day of November while not aiming to produce a novel. This year I focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) in the hope that its powerful language will help us through these days of turmoil and toward something new, stronger and more joyful, as individuals and as community. Whole series (so far)….apologies for days with multiple posts, as the blog catches up with my notes.


My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries
Vol. 5 — Birkhot Hashachar (Morning Blessings)
Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed. Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2001. p.195
Comment is from the “Bible” thread provided by Marc Brettler
Marc Zvi Brettler is Dora Golding Professor of Biblical Literature at Brandeis University.
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Monsters, Exile, and Storytelling

UPDATE: The event described here, including the brief interview with Díaz, took place on March 15, 2018. The piece below was posted on April 1. The New Yorker article, “The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma” — which has a LOT to say about monsters and trauma — was not published until April 16. See also, “More on Monsters and Storytelling.”


Exploring Babylon Chapter 19

A new picture book, by Dominican-born author Junot Díaz, has a few things to tell readers of all ages about trauma, exile, memory, and the importance of storytelling — good topics for Passover and #ExploringBabylon.

Islandborn

Islandborn relates the tale of young Lola — who attends a school where “every kid…was from somewhere else” — trying to draw a picture of her native country for a homework assignment. Having left “the Island” before she could remember, she enlists help from community members, and one older neighbor tells her something shocking:

“A long time ago, long before you were born…a monster fell upon our poor Island.

“…For thirty years the Monster did as it pleased. It could destroy an entire town with a single word and make a whole family disappear simply by looking at it.

“[Eventually…] heroes rose up…got tired of being afraid and fought the Monster….The Monster tried all of its evil tricks but in the end the heroes found the Monster’s weakness and banished it forever.”

Islandborn, Díaz’s first children’s book, is illustrated by Leo Espinosa, originally from Columbia. (NY: Dial Books for Young Readers, 2018). See Random House and Publisher’s Weekly.

Islandborn

(c) Diaz & Espinosa.Islandborn. Dial 2018.


“The Monster”

The name of “the Island” is not specified. The name of the Monster is also omitted, along with those of heroes who “banished” the Monster.

Many readers will undoubtedly think of the Dominican Republic, where Díaz was born, and the dictator who ruled ruthlessly from 1930-1961, before the author’s time. But the book itself and publisher’s descriptions deliberately do not offer any historical details.

Díaz has explained in public events that he intentionally left the island unnamed so that the reader could bring their imagination to the story. He adds that there are monsters in many countries and there are many kinds of monsters (not all are dictators); he wanted this story to be about more than one place or experience.
Social Justice Books

In addition to allowing for readers to use their imaginations, though, the idea of leaving “the Monster” unnamed has a particular resonance for Jews and other Hebrew Bible readers: After an enemy attacks the most vulnerable members of the community during the Israelites’ trek through the desert, God gives Moses the strange commandment to remember to forget the enemy’s name:

And the LORD said unto Moses: ‘Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.’
— Exod 17:14

…thou shalt blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven; thou shalt not forget.
— Deut 25:19

When I told fellow Jews, over a recent Shabbat, about Islandborn and how the book relates its tale, each one mumbled some version of “blot out the name!” And that heritage has raised many questions over the centuries about what and how we remember and what and how we re-tell.

Legacy and Response

Social Justice Books suggest that “one place where young readers could handle a more accurate narrative, than what is offered in the book, is in the description of what happened to” the unnamed heroes:

Lola was told, “No one knows really [what happened to them.] It was so long ago.” The truth is that we actually do know what happened to the Mirabal sisters and countless others….A response that children could handle would be “Sadly, many were killed, but others survived. Their children, like you, continue to work for a better world today.”

Some social studies teachers and individual parents may want to discuss the specifics of Dominican history around Islandborn or use it to discuss motivations behind much immigration. Díaz, however, prefers to steer the conversation in more universal directions.

At a recent Islandborn book talk for young readers and writers — 1st through 5th grade, accompanied by a few pre-schoolers and adults, at a DC Public Library branch — the first young person to speak declared: “Monsters aren’t real.” In response, Díaz spoke generally, first agreeing with the student and then explaining that his home country was, in fact, once “taken over by a very bad man who was kinda like a monster.” The author never mentioned the Dominican context again and never got more specific.

After the event, I asked Díaz if he ever addressed young readers — like those at Capitol View Neighborhood Library, where we met — by helping them name monsters in their lives. Again, he rejected a more specific path: “I don’t think [local youth] need to hear anything from me about the monsters they face….If their lives are anything like mine, they know.”

Instead, the author argues: “The key is to help them confront and work through their experiences, forge friendships and solidarities.”

Toward that end, Díaz asked young readers to look at how the people eventually defeated the monster. He drew attention to the illustration above, noting that all monsters have a weakness that can be used against them, and that people joining together is essential….Students at Capitol View noted, based on the illustration and their own experience, the role of singing in uniting people.

How We Tell the Tale

The tenor of the Islandborn youth discussion at Capitol View remained largely philosophical and literary, rather than historical. Several young readers asked questions around why monsters do what they do. The author suggested several reasons, including the example of an older sibling wanting more than a fair portion of a treat meant for sharing. In response to another student, Díaz raised the concept of literary tropes around monsters.

Still, one ten-year-old did wonder, “What about the good people who are killed by the monsters before it’s defeated?” Díaz suggested, given that the age range present and how close to the end of the allotted time the question arose, that the young person talk to him following the group gathering.

In a similar vein, a local rabbi recently shared that his very young children do not know about the tenth plague [death of the first-born], despite its prominence in the Passover story. Of course, age and maturity of audience must influence content or emphasis in storytelling. Beyond age-appropriateness, however, the question of what to tell and what to omit is a deeper issue:

  • If we don’t relate the horrors, how will we ensure that victims are remembered and future generations informed?
  • How do we ensure memory and sensitivity, without perpetuating trauma?
  • Depending on the depth of our storytelling, how do young people — and the older people they become — relate to our state of exile?

At one point in Islandborn, after neighbors have opened up to Lola about the good and the horrible on “the Island,” child and grandmother have a key exchange:

Abuela, did you know about the Monster?”
“Of course, hija. Why do you think so many of us are here in the North?”

— on this second day of the omer, 5778

Oved with an Ayin

Confusion sometimes arises from the similarity, in English transliteration and in pronunciation, between two prominent words in the haggadah: ‘oved‘ meaning ‘slave’ and ‘oved‘ in the phrase “Arami oved avi,” from Deuteronomy 26:5. The previous post provided a little background on “‘oved‘ with an aleph.” And here, as promised, are a few examples of the word ‘avadim‘ as in “avadim hayinu [we were slaves].”

oved‘ with an ayin: Exodus

Words from the root עבד (oved — ayin-bet-dalet) appear frequently in the Torah and later books of the Tanakh, with many instances in the Exodus story.

For example, Pharaoh is told “let My people go, that they may serve Me” in Exodus 7:16, 8:1, 10:3,…:

שַׁלַּח עַמִּי,
וְיַעַבְדֻנִי.
“…let My people go, that they may serve Me.”
— Exodus 10:3

Pharaoh responds several times, telling Moses “Go ye, serve the LORD…” with some restrictions added:

לְכוּ
עִבְדוּ
אֶת-יְהוָה
רַק צֹאנְכֶם וּבְקַרְכֶם, יֻצָּג: גַּם-טַפְּכֶם, יֵלֵךְ עִמָּכֶם–
Go ye, serve the LORD;
only let your flocks and your herds be stayed; let your little ones also go with you.’
— Exodus 10:24

Later, reference is made again and again to the Israelites leaving “Egypt and the house of bondage.” (Exodus 10:3, 10:14, 20:2,…)

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-הָעָם, זָכוֹר אֶת-הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר
יְצָאתֶם מִמִּצְרַיִם
עֲבָדִים מִבֵּית
And Moses said unto the people:
‘Remember this day,
in which ye came out from Egypt,
out of the house of bondage;
— Exodus 13:3

When we recite Hallel at Passover and on other festival days, we reflect on our status as servant now only to God:

אָנָּה יְהוָה,
עַבְדֶּךָ: כִּי-אֲנִי
בֶּן-אֲמָתֶךָ אֲנִי-עַבְדְּךָ,
פִּתַּחְתָּ, לְמוֹסֵרָי.
Now, ABUNDANT ONE,
I am your servant.
I, your servant, child of your servant,
I whose fetters you have opened up.
— Psalm 116:16, Kol Haneshamah
in this prayerbook, NAMES in all caps substitute for YHVH

I beseech Thee, O LORD,
for I am Thy servant;
I am Thy servant,
the son of Thy handmaid; Thou hast loosed my bands.
— Psalm 116:16 JPS 1917

More Bondage and Servants

Forms of ‘oved‘ with an ayin, meaning servant or bondman, appear at many points in the Tanakh. Here are pre-Exodus examples:

In Genesis, we are told that Canaan will be cursed, becoming “servant of servants” or “lowest of slaves” — עֶבֶד עֲבָדִים (Gen 9:25)

When Judah and his brothers are in Egypt during the drought in Canaan and are caught in an apparent theft, Judah says to Joseph: “…we are your bondmen” —
הִנֶּנּוּ עֲבָדִים (Gen 44:16)

Post-Exodus, the people are meant to serve God alone. Should economic circumstances place one Israelite in bond to another, that must be a temporary status: “And if he be not redeemed by any of these means [just outline above], then he shall go out in the year of jubilee, he, and his children with him.” (Lev. 25:54)

כִּי-לִי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל,
עֲבָדִים–עֲבָדַי הֵם,
אֲשֶׁר-הוֹצֵאתִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.
For unto Me the children of Israel are
servants; they are My servants
whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
— Leviticus 25:55

When Nebuchadrezzar, king of Babylon, threatens Jerusalem, the prophet Jeremiah attributes the disaster to the people’s reneging on this command: “but afterwards they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids, whom they had let go free [at the jubilee], to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and for handmaids” (Jer 34:11).

Later, when the exiles are allowed to return, Ezra remarks on God’s favor, despite the people’s sins:

כִּי-עֲבָדִים
אֲנַחְנוּ–וּבְעַבְדֻתֵנוּ, לֹא עֲזָבָנוּ אֱלֹהֵינוּ;
For we are bondmen;
yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage,
-Ezra 9:9

Avadim

posted on this seventh day of the Omer 5777, with this prayer:
“In remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, we pray that you release all whose bodies and spirits remain captive and enable us to extend Your outstretched arm in the process of liberation.” (see Ritual Well)

Why is This ‘Oved’ Different from The Other Seder ‘Oved’?

“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 “Arami oved avi,” from Deuteronomy 26:5.

The Hebrew words for “slave,” “work,” and “worship” or “service” all have the same root. (More on “oved with an ayin” in a future post). But I have never heard anyone question the meaning of “avadim hayinu…” which appears near the start of the Passover telling: “We were slaves, and now we’re free.”

Note the letter ayin at the start of the word “avadim [slaves].”

Avadim.jpg

Avadim hayinu

The Deuteronomy verse, “Arami oved avi…” is another story. The ‘oved‘ with an aleph lends itself to several relatively straightforward translations as well as a traditional homelitical reading based on the biblical character most commonly identified with Aram.

Note the letter “aleph” at the start of “oved [lost, perished, fugitive,…].”

AramiOvedAvi.jpg

Arami oved avi

For discussion of “Who is Arami?” and “What does it mean to be oved?” in the Deuteronomy setting and in the Passover Haggadah, see “Ki Tavo: A Path to Follow.” Here, just to explore Hebrew vocabulary a bit more, is a little background on the word ‘oved‘ (with an aleph) itself.

oved‘ with an aleph

Forms of ‘oved‘ (with an aleph) appear frequently in biblical text. Here are a few instances, along with some translations.

Jeremiah 9:11 —

מִי-הָאִישׁ הֶחָכָם וְיָבֵן אֶת-זֹאת
וַאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר פִּי-יְהוָה אֵלָיו וְיַגִּדָהּ;
עַל-מָה
אָבְדָה
הָאָרֶץ, נִצְּתָה כַמִּדְבָּר מִבְּלִי עֹבֵר.
Who is the wise man, that he may understand this?
And who is he to whom the mouth of the LORD hath spoken,
that he may declare it?
Wherefore is the land
perished and laid waste
like a wilderness, so that none passeth through?
— JPS 1917 translation

…Why is the land in ruins
— JPS 1999

Micah 7:2 —

אָבַד
חָסִיד מִן הָאָרֶץ,
וְיָשָׁר בָּאָדָם אָיִן:
The godly man is perished out of the earth,
and the upright among men is no more
— JPS 1917

The pious are vanished from the land
— JPS 1999

Psalms 9:7 —

אָבַד
זִכְרָם הֵמָּה
…their very memorial is perished.
— JPS 1917

…their very names are lost.
— JPS 1999 with note: “meaning of Hebrew uncertain”

Ezekiel 12:22 —

בֶּן-אָדָם, מָה-הַמָּשָׁל הַזֶּה לָכֶם,
עַל-אַדְמַת יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:
יַאַרְכוּ, הַיָּמִים,
וְאָבַד,
כָּל-חָזוֹן.
‘Son of man, what is that proverb
that ye have in the land of Israel, saying:
The days are prolonged,
and every vision faileth?
— JPS 1917

…every vision comes to naught“?
— JPS 1999

One more point of comparison, just because Temple Micah’s Hebrew poetry group encountered this modern Hebrew instance — over studies during the Shabbat of Passover — and noted how ‘obed‘ with an aleph and ‘obed‘ with an ayin sound alike to most English-speaking, and to some Hebrew-speaking, ears.

Lost

Yehuda Amichai’s “Shir Ha-Chut La-Machut [Poem of the Needle for the Thread]” has not been published in English translation. Our group rendered this line from the poem as “Only in the day, you are lost in the light,” or “Only in the daylight, are you lost.” (We struggled with the expression “b’yom ha-ohr.”)

And, finally, here are several versions of Deuteronomy 26:5 —

וְעָנִיתָ וְאָמַרְתָּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ,
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי,
וַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה,
וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט; וַיְהִי-שָׁם,
לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָב.
And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God:
‘A wandering Aramean was my father,
and he went down into Egypt,
and sojourned there, few in number;
and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous.
— JPS 1917

…’My father was a fugitive Aramean…’
— JPS 1999

‘An Aramean Astray my Ancestor”
— Everett Fox translation, 1995

posted on this sixth day of the Omer 5777, with this prayer:
“In remembrance of the Exodus from Egypt, we pray that you release all whose bodies and spirits remain captive and enable us to extend Your outstretched arm in the process of liberation.” (see Ritual Well)

April 22: 1968 and 2016

Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt?

poor_peoples_campaign_flyer_article

from the King Archive

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 far we’ve (not) come in the last 50 years and consider how we might do better?

Here is a link to King’s remarks in the Campaign press release, a month before his assassination.

Here are some sources on the Campaign itself, which drew thousands to Washington, and included Resurrection City, erected on the National Mall in May:

A New Telling

In the 48 years since the Poor People’s Campaign, too little has changed, on the one hand. See, e.g: The Unfinished March and The Unfinished March: an Overview.

On the other hand, we have seen decades of generational poverty and violence and other oppressive conditions disproportionately affecting communities of color. And one thing which has changed in recent decades is the further development of Whiteness Studies, exploring the facts and impact of systemic racism.

Is there is room in your Passover and Omer practice for THAT maggid, for recalling — and telling the young or uninformed — how it is that Whiteness developed in this country and what it has meant? Follow #WhitenessHistoryMonth on Twitter, and see more below, for some bits to include.

Who can say we’ve actually left? “Wherever you live, it is probably Egypt,” Michael Walzer wrote.

…Do you live in a place in which some people are more equal than others? In America, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is nearly twice as high as it is for whites. Black people are five times as likely to be incarcerated as whites. Infant mortality in the black community is twice as high as it is among whites. America is a golden land, absolutely, and for Jews, it has been an ark of refuge. But it has not yet fulfilled its promise….
[Updated, additional statistics**]
…aren’t we still commanded to bring everyone out of Egypt?
New American Haggadah (Boston: Little, Brown, 2012)

Some generally related resources:
American Jewish World Service
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice

More coming soon. Please share your ideas and sources.

I believe the “Seeing White” album, with some #WhitenessHistoryMonth contributions is visible to all. (If not, I’ll work on other options.)


**Newer, and additional, statistics

Unemployment still nearly twice as high for black Americans as for whites (NPR), as noted in New American Haggadah. In fact, Black Americans with college degrees have higher unemployment that White Americans without a high school diploma (EPI).

Infant mortality among black families is still twice that found in white families, while Native Americans experience an infant mortality rate 150% that of white Americans. (CDC)

Black people in the U.S. are now SIX times more likely to be incarcerated as white people (NAACP), up from five times when New American Haggadah was published. The Sentencing Project finds similar disparity for Hispanic Americans. In addition, here is the growing disparity for U.S. school children:

For black children born in 1978, by the time they reached the age of 14, 14% had experienced a parent’s incarceration. For children born twelve years later, the rate rose to one quarter of black children witnessing a parent’s incarceration. The rate rose for white children as well – from 1% of white children born in 1978 having an incarcerated parent by the time they reached age 14 to 3% of white children born in 1990 experiencing a parent’s incarceration.
Education Town Hall

BACK

Racism: Congenital Deformity, Sickness Unto Death

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 fear that we will learn very shortly that racism is a sickness unto death.
— “DR. KING CALLS FOR ACTION AGAINST POVERTY AND RACISM CITED IN RIOT STUDY; POOR PEOPLE’S CAMPAIGN STARTS APRIL 22 IN WASHINGTON,” 3/4/68 SCLC press release (see King archives)

*Nat’l Advisory Commission on Civil Disorder (report summary)

The president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference continues, calling racism a “congenital deformity” of the United States:

whereEver since the birth of our nation, white America has had a schizophrenic personality on the question of race. She has been torn between selves—a self in which she proudly professed the great principles of democracy and a self in which she sadly practiced the antithesis of democracy. This tragic duality has produced a strange indecisiveness and ambivalence toward the Negro, causing America to take a step backward simultaneously with every step forward on the question of racial justice, to be at once attracted to the Negro and repelled by him, to love and to hate him. There has never been a solid, unified and determined thrust to make justice a reality for Afro-Americans…. What is the source of this perennial indecision and vacillation? It lies in the ‘congenital deformity’ of racism that has crippled the nation from its inception.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.,
Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
1967; Reprinted, Boston: Beacon Press, 2010

One month later, 48 years ago today, Martin Luther King was assassinated.

This year, Passover begins on April 22. Where do we go from here?
While everyone in the U.S. must be asking this question, it seems particularly incumbent on Jews as the annual festival of freedom approaches: None of us is free unless all of us is free.