“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 […]
[updated 8/15] At the invitation of Temple Micah‘s Lunch and Learn program (8/10/16), I shared some thoughts about Jews and Racial Justice. I appreciate the opportunity. As promised, I offer the references cited for anyone who wants to explore further: Jews and Racial Justice reference page. I also include below a link to the SongRiseDC […]
“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 […]
“…but they did not heed because of shortness of spirit-breath” (Exodus) “It’s complicated…” (“Wrestling Jerusalem”) Early on in the Exodus story, we learn that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt were unable to absorb Moses’ message of imminent redemption because of “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit” due to “hard work” or “cruel bondage” (Exodus 6:9; […]
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.
This week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim ([Laws], Exodus 21:1-24:18), warns us severely and often about evils of racism. The bible knew no such word, of course, and, ironically, this portion also contains material that appears to accept “bondage” as a normal part of [ancient] life. But messages about racial justice and related concepts are nonetheless there, and quite strong, if we look carefully.
“God’s wrath” and “idolatry”
The biblical expression “divine wrath” is reserved for cases of idolatry on the part of the whole Nation, according to Maimonides and later scholars. And this understanding calls us to avoid afflicting “widows and orphans”:
In our case [Exodus 22:23: “My wrath will burn (וְחָרָה אַפִּי)”], the same expression is deliberately used in order to equate the affliction of the orphan and the widow to idolatry, teaching us that there is no crime greater than this.
— New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, Nehama Leibowitz, p.395
Many teachers understand “widows and orphans” as a biblical expression meaning “the most vulnerable among us,” which surely includes victims of hundreds of years of racism in the U.S. From a somewhat more literal perspective, black communities today include too many widows and orphans, as well as grieving mothers and traumatized communities.
Moreover, idolatry and racism are directly connected:
Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is. Few of us realize that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.
Perhaps this Conference should have been called “Religion or Race.” You cannot worship God and at the same time look at man as if he were a horse.
“Race prejudice, a universal human ailment, is the most recalcitrant aspect of the evil in man” (Reinhold Niebuhr), a treacherous denial of the existence of God.
What is an idol? Any god who is mine but not yours, any god concerned with me but not with you, is an idol.
— Abraham Joshua Heschel, Conference on “RELIGION AND RACE” (14 JANUARY 1963)
Both Heschel and Leibowitz stress, based on ancient tradition, that being silent in the face of oppression is as serious as committing the crime ourselves. (No time to explore this further right now — Shabbat is almost upon us — but will return to this theme.)
This portion is also one in which we are warned about not oppressing a stranger, reminded again and again that we were once strangers in Egypt.
In addition, we are warned against “false reports” and “running with the multitude,” both of which seem obviously connected to racism. (Again, time has run out for now. More later.)