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)

Trouble to See #1: Expelling a Crease or Two

[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 rendition of Ella’s Song (from Ella Baker & Sweet Honey and the Rock) that I was unable to share during the talk.

And just to clarify: I share in these “Trouble to See” posts some views which are not my own, for purposes of learning and discussion. But nothing here is the view of Temple Micah.

Skip ahead:
Expelling Creases from the Fold
Trouble to See

Through this talk, I succeeded in annoying a number of people — including myself — for a whole variety of reasons. (I’d like to think that’s some sign of success, given the topic.) At best what I shared can only be the beginning of a long, complicated — and, ultimately, very difficult — conversation.

Trouble to See

We began this afternoon, and I hope we can all continue exploring, with the idea of taking “trouble to see,” based on commentary about Moses at the Burning Bush.  MicahTrouble1

 

Here’s the commentary —

 

and the questions I hope we can ask, as we look back on what we think we know about race and racial justice:MicahTrouble2

This is the original post, from 2015, exploring the idea of taking “trouble to see” following the death of Walter Scott.

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Expelling Creases from the Fold

Creases

As part of this exercise in turning the neck, taking “trouble to see” aspects of our past experience in new light, I shared a portion of my memoir/essay, “Skins,” which will appear in the forthcoming Expelling Creases from the Fold, an anthology published by Liberated Muse Arts Group. Thanks to Liberated Muse for allowing me to share this material in advance of its publication.

Here’s a link to the full talk. The reading of “Skins” begins around minute 18:00. (Not the best quality video, sorry. Looking forward to the anthology!!)
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Ella’s Song

Sorry I could not share the SongRise version of “Ella’s Song” during the lunch today. For all in the room today — and anyone else who does not know “Ella’s Song” — as SongRise’s Sarah Beller explains in her introduction: The lyrics are words of Ella Baker, one of the founders of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the music was created by Sweet Honey and the Rock.

Last note: the SongRise video cuts off mid-way through their second powerful number, “A Change is Gonna Come.” more on that later…
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Blasphemy of Pharaoh’s Overreach: Theology, Context and the Trouble I’ve Seen

“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 says needs equal attention in the Jewish thought. (Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.)

Religious Thought and Practice

Hart notes the optional or alternative status of “women’s,” “peace,” or “black” theology:

According to [teacher John Franke] white male theologians have often seen themselves as objective and neutral overseers of Christian tradition. They function as “theological referees” for everyone else, while imagining their position as neutral and unbiased in the center of all the action….Missing is that white men have a social context too.

— p. 163, Trouble I’ve Seen

TroubleA parallel situation still applies all too well in much of the Jewish world. As does his analysis of how well-intentioned attempts at diversity and inclusion often fail to create real change. Many of his recommendations for the Church are ones other faith communities should explore as well:

  1. “Share life together.”
  2.  Practice solidarity. (See, e.g., Be’chol Lashon, Jewish Multi-Racial Network, and Jews of All Hues, as well as links at “Exodus from Racism”)
  3. “See the world from below,” by changing reading habits, for example. (See “Range of Possibilities” for some suggestions.)
  4. “Subvert racial hierarchy in the [religious infrastructure].”
  5. “Soak in scripture and the Spirit for renewed social imagination.” (Explore  “Pharaoh’s Hardened Heart,” e.g. and these resources from Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center.)
  6. “Seek first the kingdom of God.”
  7. Engage in self-examination.

— from p. 176, Trouble I’ve Seen

Current and Historical Re-Examination

Hart’s exploration of “White Jesus” and related Church history may seem irrelevant to those outside the Christian faith. This is important background for every U.S. citizen, however, and worth review for those as yet unfamiliar.

Moreover, Jewish communities would do well to consider whether our members are aware of essential demographics — such as a recent study showing white men with criminal convictions more likely to get positive job-application responses than black men without a record (see p. 145) — and the individual and cumulative effect of everyday racism experienced by the author of Trouble I’ve Seen.

Most importantly, Jews must join our Christian neighbors in examining how we “resemble this remark”:

Too many in the American Church have perpetuated the myth that this land was build on Christian principle rather than on stolen land and stolen labor.

p.145, Trouble I’ve Seen

Hart’s new volume provides important food for thought as we continue to read Exodus this winter and experience it in the upcoming Passover season.

Hart

Drew G. I. Hart

More about “Anablacktivist” Drew G.I. Hart

Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Sees Racism. Harrisonberg, VA: Herald Press, 2016.

What are you reading this Exodus season?

Please share your resources and your thinking.

“Wrestling Jerusalem” and Listening thru Oppression

“…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; see note below).

At this point, Moses asks God how it is that he, of “blocked speech,” will be able to communicate God’s message to Pharaoh, when even the Israelites won’t listen to him. The story continues with a strong focus on Pharaoh’s inability to hear, alternately attributed to “stubbornness” (e.g., Ex 7:13) and “hardness of heart” (e.g., Ex 8:11). Hebrew below.

Aaron Davidman in Wrestling Jerusalem (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

Aaron Davidman in “Wrestling Jerusalem,” now at DC’s Mosaic Theater (Photo: Teddy Wolff)

So, at the center of the Exodus story is a massive, multi-faceted failure to communicate: a prophet/leader with blocked speech (more literally: “uncircumcised lips”), slaves who cannot breathe well enough to communicate clearly, and a ruler who cannot even hear his own magicians (Ex 8:15) and servants (Ex 10:7). The story reminds us how difficult it is for communication to succeed across communities and through oppression. And the story warns us of the dangers of failing in those communication attempts.

Aaron Davidman‘s one-man play, “Wrestling Jerusalem” — currently [January 2016] at Mosaic Theater Company of DC — embodies at least 17 different voices, from across Israel and Palestine, in monologue and in argument. Each voice provides a very specific perspective, unique to the conflict he is exploring. Throughout the performance, however, echoes of the U.S. conflict come through loud and clear.

Wrestling Jerusalem and the U.S.

In the play, one Palestinian voice explains that the only Israelis he has met are soldiers who often mistreat him and rarely recognize his humanity. How many people of color in the U.S. have a similar experience with white people?

Photo: Teddy Wolff

Photo: Teddy Wolff

Many Black communities in the U.S. view police, not as protectors of peace, but as a “White” power structure occupying and terrorizing their neighborhood. Too many people of color know white people only as government representatives and developers ready to view them as problems to be “fixed.”

“Wrestling” characters, alternately inhabiting Davidman’s body, argue about Hamas: Is it a community organization with a strong feeding program? or an armed group bent on the destruction of Israel? Would donations ear-marked for food programs simply enable violent resistance? With minor changes, these same words have been used to discuss the Black Panther Party or the Nation of Islam: Caring for the ‘hood? Or plotting the downfall of the U.S. power structure?

It’s Complicated
The performance opens with a brilliant “multi-logue” beginning with the pronouncement: “It’s complicated.” Davidman tries to identify the conflict’s start: With the ’67 war? Or 1948 — called either “the Catastophe” or the “War of Independence,” depending on one’s perspective? Maybe with earlier Arab or Jewish violence…or with the British or the Romans? It closes with cries of “If only the world would just leave us alone!” and “If only the world would get involved!”

It’s hard not to hear another set of wrestlers with a parallel litany of “how it started.” Beginning perhaps with Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin, extending to Emmett Till and Medgar Evers, lives and livelihoods lost in riots of the 20th Century or the 19th, uprisings and mobs of the 18th Century. Then stretching back through U.S. economic dependence on labor of enslaved people and beyond to European views of the “Dark Continent.”

“Help us!” “Leave us alone!”
We might also hear, echoed in the final lines, calls for police to stop “occupying” black neighborhoods and for “Displacement Free” development zones, on the one hand, and on the other, attempts to involve the the U.N. in human rights violations within the United States.

Photo: Teddy Wolff

Photo: Teddy Wolff

The “Aaron” character of “Wrestling Jerusalem” tells us, as he rides the bus through security checkpoints, that he’s been to Israel many times but never before crossed into Ramallah. Likewise, how many residents of north or west Chicago rarely, if ever, cross 75th Street to the South? How many residents of western Washington, DC, seldom cross the Anacostia River? And, of course, vice versa.

Listen!

So many other elements of “Wrestling Jerusalem” — from description of inter- generational trauma to discussion of if/when to take up arms — apply equally to the United States. Davidman’s gift to the conflict around Israel is in embodying and weaving together, with respect, so many voices: Arab and Jew, Israeli and Palestinian, settler and soldier, partier, tourist, and long-time Liberal Israeli rabbi. Each is given the floor and heard in turn. In giving them each something of himself as well as their own unique voices, commonality and difference, Davidman helps us listen across conflict and through oppression.

In a sense, “Wrestling Jerusalem” is an antidote for the Exodus’ failures to communicate. May we listen equally well to the many, often-overlooked perspectives of conflict in the United States.

-1Tickets still available for limited DC run, through January 24.



Thanks to Elliot Eder and participants in Fabrangen West and to the LCVY Hill Torah Discussion Group for Exodus insights that inspired these remarks.

Exodus 6:9
וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה כֵּן, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל; וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ, וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה.
Moses [delivered God’s message of imminent redemption] to the Children of Israel. But they did not heed Moses, because of shortness of breath and hard work [or crushed spirits due to cruel bondage].

מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ mi-kotzer ruach
ruach = “breath” and “spirit”
mi-kotzer ruach = “shortness of breath” or “crushed spirit”

וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה m’avodah kashah
avodah = “work,” “bondage,” and “worship”
m’avodah kashah = “hard work” or “cruel bondage”

וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב chazak lev
“stubbornness” (literally: strong of heart; e.g., Ex 7:13)

וְהַכְבֵּד אֶת-לִבּוֹ kh’veid et-libo
“hardness of heart” (literally: heavy of heart; e.g., Ex 8:11)
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In Touch with the Source (Beyond 10)

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.

SimoneFree

(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.

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Mishpatim: Racism and Idolatry

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.)

Strangers

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.)
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Exodus Revisited: Pharaoh’s “Hardened Heart” and Contemporary “Criminal Justice”


Pharaoh’s “hardened heart” plays a big role in Exodus, providing a framework for the ten plagues, the eventual freeing of the Israelites from bondage, and serious disaster for biblical Egypt. Policies like “zero tolerance” in schools and mandatory sentences in the United States today are a kind of judicial “hardened heart.” It’s our job to find a way to “let the people go.”
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