Aaron and Moses, Thurgood and Sam

The Book of Exodus — in fact a passage from last week’s Torah portion — makes an odd appearance in the movie, Marshall (2017 — Netflix subscribers, NOTE: The movie leaves that platform on Jan 1, 2022.) At first, oddities in the way the verses show up broke my willing suspension of disbelief. Eventually, however, I came to appreciate the scene and light it sheds back on the Exodus story.

Marshall and Friedman

The movie is based on a 1941 court case with Civil Rights implications. Here’s a summary of the real-life court case, published years before the movie was released. Here’s information about the movie, from IMDB, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) and Josh Gad (b. 1981).

Early on in the story — in real life as in the movie — Thurgood Marshall, then NAACP’s itinerant attorney, must convince Sam Friedman, a Connecticut attorney specializing in insurance, to take up Joseph Spell’s defense. Friedman, 38, had no experience in criminal cases; Marshall, 32, had the experience but was refused standing as co-counsel by the judge.

Once the lawyers learn that Marshall is forbidden to speak at all at the trial, they have a short, tense conversation — while another lawyer who might take the case waits on the telephone. Without preamble, Marshal intones: “And the Lord commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help.” Friedman recognizes the reference and joins in, saying along with Marshall: “He shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him.”

Friedman agrees to take the case. Throughout the trial, Marshall directs his colleague’s every move, until eventually — as in the historical case — they win a not-guilty verdict.

Exodus 4:14-16

Moses and Aaron together pleading with Pharaoh to let the People go is among the most well-known Bible stories. Prior to that, at the close of the Burning Bush scene (Exodus 3:1ff), is a less famous passage: God becomes angry with Moses, promises to be “with the mouth” of both brothers, and tells Moses to be “as God” to Aaron (Ex 4:14-16).

These are not the most mellifluous verses, the most often quoted, or the most likely to land on inspirational household decorations. Still, both lawyers know this passage well enough to quote. And, although translations are quite varied, due in part to awkward phrasing in Hebrew, men from different backgrounds have somehow learned the same English words by heart.

Moreover, Marshall begins with Moses being commanded to enlist Aaron’s help, something not found in the Hebrew or in any translation I could find. Possibly this paraphrase is from a popular culture source of the 1920-30s, although there is no suggestion of that in the scene, or a commonly accepted Sunday-school rendition. Perhaps Marshall KNOWS the quote is not quite right and altered it for a point.

Or, my best guest: movie-makers were content using not-quite-Bible, even in a scene where the words seem so pivotal; in other words, they were far less obsessed than I with issues of translation and transmission**….

I only found one discussion of the movie mentioning this scene, and its author is entirely unconcerned by what I found anomalous. In fact, Rabbi Elliot Gertel’s piece adds more layers of mismatch: he says that Marshall “quotes” and Friedman “is able to complete the verse,” but then offers a quotation himself that differs substantially from what is actually said in the movie:

God’s words to Moses in the Book of Exodus (4:16), regarding Aaron: “And he shall be God’s spokesman to the people, that he shall be to you a mouth, and shall be to him in God’s stead.” Impressively, Sam is able to complete the verse.

“Marshall” — Civil Rights and Old-Fashioned Shul Jews (November 2017)

TEXT NOTES: R’ Gertel appears to be using a modified version of Old JPS: “And he shall be thy spokesman unto the people; and it shall come to pass, that he shall be to thee a mouth, and thou shalt be to him in God’s stead.” More translations (some would have been similar in 1941; some are newer) at Bible Hub. Bilingual Hebrew/English for Exodus Chapter 4; interactive text with commentary.

Thurgood and Sam

I didn’t see this movie when it was new and don’t know if there was discussion at the time around use of the Bible story. As noted above, the quotation itself snapped me out of believing in the story as it was presented; a side effect of this shift of perspective, for better or worse, was a new look at the Exodus story.

When Thurgood says “God commanded Moses to enlist his brother’s help,” I hear three things:

  1. asking for Sam’s help in a way that the Bible text itself does not support: God tells Moses to meet Aaron and vice versa (4:27) but never tells Moses to ask for help;
  2. suggesting divine imperative behind the request: if God told Moses/Thurgood to ask, Aaron/Sam has no choice of response; and
  3. calling Sam his brother.

When Sam joins in reciting a version of Exodus 4:16, I also hear three sentiments:

  1. acknowledging brotherhood with Thurgood;
  2. recognizing that the request is bigger than the individuals involved; and
  3. agreeing to a role that, like Aaron, only he can play at that point.

If Aaron and Moses ever had a conversation weighing their responsibilities or wondering if/how they could operate as a brother-team, that’s hidden deep inside the white space between the Bible’s letters. But the text suggests that Moses and Aaron were relative strangers, if not entirely unknown to one another, prior to God’s call to each of them. So maybe the two tales — of Sam and Thurgood, Aaron and Moses — can shed mutual light on how individuals with no history or reason for trust can recognize sibling-partners in one another.

Another resonance between the tales is a pattern of objection, frustration, and acquiescence. Moses objects repeatedly to God’s call at the Burning Bush; God gets angry, and then announces the Aaron-mouth Moses-“God” team. Sam raises objection after objection to Joseph Spell as a client: he was dishonorably discharged from the Service, he left behind a wife and two children, he was charged with theft at another job… Thurgood snaps that criminal defendants are not ideal citizens and tells Sam he has no time for “selling” the task, he just needs him to do it, at which point the not-quite-Bible text seals the Sam-mouth Thurgood-“God” team.

R’ Gertel wonders, parenthetically, if Thurgood is being immodest by equating himself with Moses, and through Exodus 4:16, “as God.” The Thurgood of this Marshall film is nothing if not chutzpadik. But that is beside the point for the link between the lawyers’ story and Exodus. The real chutzpah, I think, is on the part of writers Michael and Jacob Koskoff.

Marshall as Midrash

Given that the Koskoffs paraphrased Exodus 4:14 and left out the part about God promising to be with both brothers in 4:15, sticking with the obscure and awkward pronouncement of 4:16, “…you shall be as God to him [וְאַתָּה תִּהְיֶה-לּוֹ לֵאלֹהִים, ve’atah tihyeh-lo le’Elohim],” must have been deliberate. In addition, the clunky language choice is part of a pivotal moment, creating the brother-team. And one effect of bringing this “as God” in at this point is to equate Civil Rights legal maneuvers to the Exodus Story.

Michael Koskoff (1942-2019) was a lawyer who saw parallels between Friedman’s work and his own, in defense of Black Panthers, e.g. But is this lionizing of legal efforts “immodesty” on anyone’s part? Or is it hinting at a kind of Legal Liberation Theology?

R’ Gertel’s piece about “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” closes with a question about whether/how: “…ties to synagogue and Jewish life have brought a precious and irreplaceable quality to social action by Jews.” This is a crucial question to ponder without romanticizing Jewish involvement in the Civil Rights movement.

And a fictionalized view of real life lawyers battling an inequitable system, in- and outside the courtroom, can illuminate the relationship of Aaron and Moses, two siblings who barely knew one another, taking up a dangerous and uncertain path toward undoing oppression.


**R’ Gertel’s “Old Fashioned Shul Jews” spends a fair amount of ink on the meaning of carrying and exchanging of money on the sabbath in one Marshall scene. As with my obsession with the use of a pseudo-quotation from the bible, I think the best explanation is that no one associated with the movie thought to worry about this being considered a violation of Shabbat by many Jews.

For more: AP story (2017) about Sam Friedman, interviewing daughter and a piece by Friedman’s grand-nephew Paul Friedman. Writer Michael Koskoff talks about his own legal and Jewish backgrounds; obit in NYT.

RETURN

Teraphim and Elohim, Calvin & Hobbes

In the Book of Genesis, Rachel steals the teraphim that were her father’s (31:19). Meanwhile, Laban accuses Jacob of stealing “my gods [elohai]”; Jacob responds, speaking of “elohekha” [your gods], using Laban’s term; and a tent-by-tent search is conducted (Gen 31:30-33). Rachel and the teraphim then re-appear in Gen 31:34-35. Why “elohim” when it’s Jacob and Laban, and teraphim only when Rachel is around?

…The word “teraphim” is used three times in Rachel’s presence, and then never again in the Torah. In the prophetic books, there are a dozen more mentions of teraphim (Judges, Samuel, Kings, Ezekiel, Hosea, and Zechariah). “Elohim” is grammatically plural and means both (plural) gods or judges and (singular) name of God of Israel….

Many would attribute the shift in language to different source texts. Perhaps, though, vocabulary change indicates fundamental differences in experience. Genesis itself doesn’t tell us what the elohim/teraphim meant to any of the individuals or the households involved. But, we do find a few clues in the text.

Two relationships

After the search fails, Jacob and Laban do not again mention the elohai, which remain abstract, another element in a larger argument over possessions and twenty years of grievances. There is intensity between Jacob and Laban, but other family members recede into the men’s power struggle: Women and children become inanimate or invisible, while households gods seem to disappear. One moment, Jacob is declaring theft of elohim worthy of death-penalty; the next, they’re well and truly forgotten.

Meanwhile, whatever the teraphim were to anyone else, they do seem important to Rachel. She had no idea, when they were leaving home, that Jacob would later make a death-pronouncement about the theft. But she does seem willing to take substantial risk in stealing them. And her method of keeping them hidden is tied to her own body and “the ways of women.” Rachel’s life seems intimately attached to these teraphim.

Maybe, the switch of vocabulary indicates that Rachel relates to the teraphim differently than her (male) kin folk.

Two word-scenes

For Jacob and Laban the household gods seem abstract, maybe a little like this set of featureless, static images —

“Why have you stolen my gods?”
Image: a monochrome set of featureless human-shape models — the pose-able kind artists use to aid in sculpture or sketching — with the words “why have you stolen my gods [לָמָּה גָנַבְתָּ, אֶת-אֱלֹהָי]” in Hebrew across them. Artist dummy images are public domain, via Pixabay.

When Rachel’s around, though, the household gods seem more animated and personal, maybe a little like this set of images with real, lifelike features and sense of movement —

“And he didn’t find the teraphim.”
Image: two more monochrome artist’s models, this time in animated poses, around an ancient Canaanite figure, with the words “and he didn’t find the teraphim [וְלֹא מָצָא אֶת-הַתְּרָפִים]” superimposed. Canaanite image from LookandLearn.com. Dummy images are public domain, no attribution from Pixabay.

The vocabulary switch strikes me as something like the shifts from panel to panel in Bill Watterston’s “Calvin & Hobbes.” When Calvin was with Hobbes, Hobbes was an animated companion; but when another human entered the picture, Hobbes was an ordinary, inanimate stuffed toy. I am not suggesting teraphim are anything like stuffed animals to Rachel or anyone else in the story. Just fascinated by a sort of parallel shift in scene from one of animated connection to one of subject-object.

Sources, Paths, Prayers and More Notes in the Weekly Portion

Once upon a time, this blog offered a series of posts on portion of the week, sharing notes about interesting sources and paths to follow. At a later stage, I included some posts about links to prayers found in the weekly portion. Here is a new landing page with most of these links in order.

“One of Me” and Genesis 2

There is no “man” or “woman” in the early part of Genesis, even after “the human” is created (twice). The first Torah portion, Breishit (Gen 1:1-6:8), read this week as the cycle begins again for the new year, gives two versions of humanity’s genesis. Neither one includes the word “ish” at the outset:

  • We are introduced to the earthling or the human in 1:26-27, and told ha-adam is in God’s image and male [zachar] and female [nekevah]. (Here are a few additional notes and translations for comparison.)
  • God crafts ha-adam from ha-adamah [“the earth” or maybe “arable land”] in Gen 2:7 (and ha-adam gets singular masculine grammar treatment).

We do not see the word “ish [man]” until after isha [woman] is created and recognized by ha-adam as “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23). Subsequently, we read of ha-adam and ha-isha or ishto, usually translated as “the man” and “the woman” or “his wife [literally: his woman].”

Just prior to this, God introduces the human to all the other creates that have been created, but —

…no fitting helper was found.

Gen 2:20

There was no helper appropriate, or corresponding or opposite, [k’negdo] to the human — what the King James Version called a “help-meet.”

Not sure the Genesis text actually supports this reading, but this week I am seeing Elton John as “ezer k’negdo” for Lil Nas X.

…There has been a great deal written, ancient and current and in between, about what these verses might imply about gender and about relationships of various kinds. And there are so many layers of gender and sexuality to be explored in discussing Lil Nas X or Elton John or Dolly Parton. But it’s almost Shabbat, and that’s not my area of expertise/primary experience, and this is meant to be just a short thought…

One of Me

Recently Lil Nas X released “One of Me.” It’s an important work on its own (full lyrics), and it’s important that Elton John is featured on the song. In addition, the two of them appear together in a video advertisement. (Usually my inclination is to suspect advertisers of capitalizing on pain, but in this case I applaud Uber Eats for providing this urgently needed creative space, whatever their motives. Video “One of Me” for Uber Eats.)

Watching the elder (b. 1947) stand so publicly with the younger (b. 1999) has an enormous power. (Especially for someone raised in a home where “shush” was the only permitted, and the most polite, thing to say about Elton John’s sexuality, and anyone who remembers when the public was not kind to him.)

Without making any claims as to how the actual individuals involved — Montero Lamar Hill and Reginald Dwight or their public alter egos — feel about this, I see Elton John as ezer k’negdo, that corresponding-helper, for Lil Nas X, an elder appearing “opposite” in a way that allows the younger to appear more clearly as himself…to the world at large, if not to himself. Seems especially poignant in relation to a song about how so many want him to be something else.

Could something like that be meant when ha-adam says —

At last! This time! Bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”

Gen 2:23

after first seeing ha-isha?

Not sure the text supports this, but also not sure in this instance how much I care about being exact: Is is possible that we all have the power to serve as ezer k’negdo to others? to use our own selves in positive ways to help others see themselves more fully?


Elton John in a Lil Nas X cowboy get up and Lil Nas X in Elton’s feathers. More than that would be very hard to describe. But if requested, I’ll search out a video description.

Full official video from Lil Nas X below

not going to try to provide a video description, but if requested will try to find one

Full album — https://lilnasx.lnk.to/MonteroAlbum

Charity associated with this album — Central Alabama Alliance Resource & Advocacy Center — if you click through from the YouTube link there is a matching grant.

Miriam, Amalek, Memory, and Mouths

This dvar torah is about remembering and how Jewish memory is built with the help of our prayerbooks. Some of what I learned in preparing today’s remarks can be found in this handout.

The end of the handout is the result of the earlier parts of my studies, a brief exploration into Mishkan T’filah and earlier drafts of the siddur, mostly focusing on one pair of pages where we find: “Six Torah episodes are to be remembered each day, to refine our direction.”

The “Six Torah episodes” section can be found on pages 43 and 205 in the actual Mishkan T’filah, on page 12 in the handout, shared here.

full text version can be found here

In similar passages (more on this later) in other prayer books, “What God did to Miriam” is included here. I turned to older drafts of Mishkan T’filah, hoping they might clue me into why Miriam is not on this page.

Endnote Deadend

An endnote in the published siddur says the Six Torah episodes were “adapted from a Sephardic siddur.” But it doesn’t specify which or say what was adapted. I could find no example anywhere, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, in another siddur which changes the verses so as to omit Miriam, as Mishkan T’filah does. Every other example over the last 1000 years seems to focus on the same six incidents, all of which include a Torah verse demanding that we “remember” and/or “not forget.” Only Mishkan T’filah uses a different list. Only Mishkan T’filah leaves out specific Torah verses. And only Mishkan T’filah adds in Korach — about whom we have no memory admonition in the Torah.

These seem significant differences, and I thought it a little odd that so much changed over the course of the drafts, while this passage remained static through five years or more of edits. (See the handout for some notes on changes that did occur over the drafts.) No one I asked — including some Temple Micah clergy, current and past, and other people I thought might know — had an explanation. Rabbi Gerry Serotta, who served as interim rabbi some years ago, sent a query on my behalf to the siddur’s chief editor, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, and to Rabbi David Ellenson. If we hear back, I’ll let you know.

Improvement by Removal?

Meanwhile, Rabbi Gerry and I guessed that removing Miriam had been an attempt to respond to feminist criticism about how Miriam is usually remembered: 1) focusing on her case of tzaraat, a skin condition, rather than on anything she actually did or who she was; 2) remembering “What God did to Miriam” in a way that accuses her of lashon hara [evil speech], although that is unclear in the text; and 3) blames Miriam alone, while the text clearly states that both Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses (Numbers 12:1ff).

If it’s true that the change was made due to feminist sensibilities, it seems ironic — and oddly instructive — that, as a result, Miriam is… just gone.


Acquiring Memory

In my travels through older prayerbook drafts, I was intrigued by the adage, attributed to David Ellenson: “Acquire the memory of what it means to be a Jew.”

This prompted me to wonder:

  • What did the siddur editors want us to remember with this set of episodes?
  • What does it mean that Miriam is not on the page?
  • What would it mean if she were there?
  • What does it mean that Mishkan T’filah made this change without explanation?
  • Would the passage land differently, had an explanation been included?

From there I followed many other branches of wondering, more generally, about how memory, and Jewish identity, are formed by our practice and our prayerbooks. That brings me to older material I found relating to the Six Remembrances.

On page three of the handout is a Talmudic source arguing why the verb “remember” should be understood to mean “repeat it with your mouth.” The link between speech and remembering is an old one in Jewish thought. The passage from Sifra discusses four of the verses in the Six or Ten Remembrances.

full text version can be found here

In addition to these four, the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai are included. Here, page 6 of handout, is a typical example of how the Six Remembrances appear in contemporary prayerbooks —

full text version can be found here

Intentions and Remembering

In addition to Mishkan T’filah’s “to refine our direction,” other intentions introduce these remembrances: from a simple “some say,” to “for the sake of unification of the divine name…” and “those who recite these are assured a place in the world to come.” (See page 2 of the handout for these various intentions and page 6 for details of how the Six and Remembrances and the “Six Torah episodes” differ.)

The Sifra passage also includes an expression that really caught my attention — the idea of “heart-forgetfulness,” apparently something that can be fixed with thought, while speech is required in other cases…..

This might be a good thing to keep in mind during Elul, thinking about what can be repaired by thought and memory and what requires speaking aloud.

Back to Miriam

Now, back to Miriam, who is not on the Mishkan T’filah pages but IS in this week’s Torah portion (now last week’s, Ki Teitzei, Deut. 21:10 – 25:19 — pages 7 and 8 of the handout). Deuteronomy 24:9 is one of only 12 times her name appears in the Torah.

Rabbinic imagination saw Miriam’s Well in the white space between her death and the lack of water in the next verse. And many other stories and lessons surround Miriam. But she appears in four incidents in the Torah — named three times and “his sister” in another — and is mentioned twice more. That’s it. That’s all she wrote about Miriam.

full text version can be found here

There is a lot of commentary about the two verses in this week’s portion– the one telling the listener to heed the priests in matters of tzaraat (Deut 24:8) and the following one telling us to remember what God did to Miriam.

What God did to Miriam is related in Numbers 12. The demand that we remember what God did to Miriam is usually understood as a warning to guard the tongue, due to links in commentary between tzaraat and sins of the tongue. But it’s crucial to note that there is no direct link — either in this week’s portion or in Numbers 12 or elsewhere in Torah text — between Miriam and evil speech.

What and How We Remember

The story in Numbers 12 is full of obscure imagery, and Miriam’s tzaraat is the same condition Moses experienced at the Burning Bush, where it was part of his recognition as a prophet, and not understood as punishment at all. Early Jewish teachers chose to make Miriam an object lesson rather than following another set of interpretations with a different set of lessons.

None of the other Six or Ten Remembrances involve an individual, so — regardless of initial intention — Jewish thought and law were greatly influenced by the linkage that developed between Miriam, and women in general, and evil speech.

  • But, is that a good reason to remove the text from recitation?
  • Does that facilitate forgetting of a helpful kind?
  • What is gained and what is lost in removing a passage with difficult associations?
  • Might it be better to keep it in and work to understand and re-interpret?

Theologian Judith Plaskow discusses this in a piece on this week’s portion, “Tzaraat and Memory.” I highly recommend reading the whole thing — either in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, in print, or on My Jewish Learning.

Writing in 2008, Plaskow raises the issue of how progress can actually be a challenge to memory and to further progress. I’ll add that her conclusion can also apply to the appearance of progress, as when a problematic text is removed from regular recitation or consideration, or when we make changes that don’t always benefit the most harmed or vulnerable.

She writes, referencing the other important “memory” verses in this week’s portion:

We blot out the memory of Amalek when we create Jewish communities in which the perpetual exclusion of some group of people — or the denial of women’s rights — are so contrary to current values as to be almost incredible. Yet, if we are to safeguard our achievements, we can also never forget to remember the history of inequality and the decisions and struggles that have made more equitable communities possible.


What We Remember, What We Fix

I’ve been watching a series of mysteries focusing on women in the mid-1960s. (For fellow mystery fans: Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in 1964-65 Melbourne, Australia, a delightful set of sequels to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, set in the same area in the late 1920s.) And I’ve noticed that I am remembering, quite viscerally, how it FELT, as a girl and young woman, to have limited rights, opportunities, and expectations. And also of how dangerous it could be back then, in physical, legal, and psychic ways, for women and also for queer people and for many others….And I’m on the young side for these experiences; others have longer histories with inequality.

This exploration also reminded me of, on the one hand, how grateful I was to have to explain such things to our children as they were growing up. So many conversations that centered around: Queer people were forbidden from expressing their identity or acting on their sexuality, let alone getting married?! Women weren’t allowed to what?! US law defined whiteness as property and prevented Black people from what?!

On the other hand, I remember the desire to let them go on asking questions like “Do you have to be a mommy to lead services?” without ever realizing how impossible that question would have been in my youth and how painful it was for all of us who didn’t see ourselves reflected in leadership roles…or at all.

There is a strong tension between wanting to build a world with more equity and inclusivity, on the one hand, and the responsibility to never forget that we are sitting in a place built by damage; with many wounds still present, often unhealed, and so much work still to do. Continuing to REMEMBER, and recite, difficult passages can cause harm. But failing to remember carries it’s own risk.

The same applies in many ways to teshuva: When might it be appropriate to forget or not mention old harm, and when must we work to remember and confront? In other words, maybe, when are we dealing with heart-forgetfulness and when with something that requires us to use our mouths?

As I tried to figure out what happened with Miriam and the Six Torah episodes, I kept remembering these lines, from a song about memory and loss —

If you hear that same sweet song again,
will you know why?

— “Bird Song,” by Robert Hunter (1941-2019) & Jerry Garcia, z”l (1942-1995)
first performed Feb 19, 1971. “for Janis [Janis Joplin (1943-1970)]”

How much do we lose, and what do we gain, when we forget to remember why we chose to remember or forget?

This dvar Torah was originally prepared, and offered in a slightly different form, for Temple Micah (DC), 5781.


Handout in PDF and text versions

Full text version of handout for anyone who cannot easily do graphics is posted here.

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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

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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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.

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***
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.