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

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.

Gathering Sources: Mishpatim

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

Something to Notice: Torn foodstuff

Great Source(s): Wandering Asses

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

A path to follow: Do and Say

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

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

Mishpatim: Pavement of Sapphire Below, Consuming Fire Above

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

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

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

ARTiculate

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

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

Gathering Sources: Yitro

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

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

Something to Notice: Witnessing thunder

Great Source(s): Sefer Ha-Aggadah

Language and Translation: Pronoun scope

A Path to Follow: Zipporah

See also Yitro, for something completely different

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

433px-Jacob_Jordaens_-_Moses_and_his_Ethiopian_wife_Sephora
Moses and his Ethiopian wife Sephora (Mozes en zijn Ethiopische vrouw Sippora). Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650. Public Domain

Painting: Jacob Jordaens, ca 1650. Public Domain

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

Updated 3/18/21

This post was intended as the introduction to Until Oppression Stays Behind: Rereading Exodus toward more just and inclusive community building. It was originally posted on February 7, 2020 — when we were still in the Before Times. Until Oppression Stays Behind was the promised 2019 redraft of 2019’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. Once the world went into pandemic mode, plans for a new book morphed into a new podcast and blog Rereading Exodus https://rereading4liberation.com/ 

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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Gathering Sources: Beshalach

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the portion Beshalach — also spelled Beshalah or Beshallach — Exodus 13:17-17:16. 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.”

Language and Translation: shift of numbers
Something to Notice: Water and Complaint
A Path to Follow: Endings and Beginnings
Great Source(s): Shabbat Shirah and the Birds

See also Beshalach and Bobby McGee

Beshalach is next read in the Diaspora, mincha Feb 1 through Shabbat, February 8.

Gathering Sources: Bo

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16.

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.”

A Path to Follow: Tefillin

Language and Translation: Bo

Something to Notice: First Commandment

Great Source(s): God’s Mailbox

Bo is next read in the Diaspora minchah January 25 through Shabbat Feb 1.

Photo: from World Wide Wrap website.

Gathering Sources: Va-eira

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Va-eira — also: Va’eira, Va’era, or Vaera — Exodus 6:2-9:35. 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.”

A Path to Follow: Yo in Yocheved

Something to Notice: Passover verbs

Language and Translation: Sealed lips

Great Source(s): Knowing

More Great Source(s): The Holy Name of Being.

Va-eira is next read in the Diaspora minchah January 18 through Shabbat Jan 25.

Gathering Sources: Shemot

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1, sometimes transliterated Shemoth or Shemos. 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.”

A Path to Follow: Light, Fire, and Water in Moses’ Life

Language and Translation: The Children of Israel [proliferated]

Something to Notice: These are the names

Great Source(s): Cassuto on Exodus

Shemot is next read in the Diaspora beginning with minchah January 11 through Shabbat, Jan 18.

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro on Pexels.com