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.”
Leadership and community are key elements in the early chapters of Exodus. We see a variety of strong actions and interactions:
1) Moses sees an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew; he responds by killing the Egyptian and then hides the deceased in the sand.
2) Moses sees two Hebrew men fighting and tries to stop the aggressor.
3) The Hebrew fighter replies: “Who made you judge over us? And do you propose to murder me as you did the Egyptian?”
4) Pharaoh learns of Moses’ crime and sets out to kill him. Moses flees from Egypt.
5) Moses witnesses what appears to be an injustice as Jethro’s daughter attempt to water their flocks and intervenes, immediately and physically. (Exodus 2:11-17)
We don’t know, from the text itself, if Moses’ upbringing included grooming in Egyptian leadership skills or if he was taught Israelite ideas and practices through a continuing relationship with his birth parents. Commentators over the centuries have understood his early years in both ways.
We do know that Moses “went out unto his brethren and looked on their burdens [וַיֵּצֵא אֶל-אֶחָיו, וַיַּרְא, בְּסִבְלֹתָם]” (Exodus 2:11). What is not reported is any interaction between Moses and his brethren — or between Moses and the Midianite women at the well — that would help him understand community perspectives and concerns. He seems to have some sort of innate sense of justice, but he isn’t able to turn that inner sense into action that is helpful when faced with real world circumstances.
Like Moses, many attempting to understand and join the #BlackLivesMatter struggle don’t know how to translate a desire for justice into action that is helpful. The first step, the one Moses seems to have missed initially, is to LISTEN. Here, for those interested in taking this step, are video clips from Jews United for Justice’s “Black Lives Matter, Chanukah Action” program.
Hear directly from black activists about their experiences and their advice for white allies. More on the event and full list of speakers.
Dear White Allies:
Sunday, Jan 18
Impact Hub, 419 4th Street NW
For those beyond DC, look for local anti-racism and white ally training in your area.
The story of Exodus opens with state-mandated oppression and violence against a rapidly growing minority population, increasingly feared by the ruling majority (brief summary). Women of different communities and classes engage in resistance, separately and jointly, that eventually leads to toppling of the entire system.
From Violence to Resistance
Today, many in the U.S. are calling for acknowledgement of “the structural violence and institutional discrimination that continues to imprison our communities either in a life of poverty and/or one behind bars,” and recognition of “the full spectrum of our human rights and its obligations under international law.” Black Lives Matter addresses
…a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise….an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression….we are talking about the ways in which Black people are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity. It is an acknowledgement Black poverty and genocide is state violence.
Midwives Shifrah and Puah act against the state, we are told, because “they feared God,” prompting them to act in preservation of life. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg elaborates:
…the very extremity of the edict forces a new moral vision upon the midwives, a radical choice between life and death. Disobedience to Pharaoh becomes more than merely a refusal to kill, it becomes a total dedication to nourishing life.
— Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, p.23 (full citation)
Similarly, I think, the Herstory of #BlackLivesMatter exhorts us:
…when Black people cry out in defense of our lives, which are uniquely, systematically, and savagely targeted by the state, we are asking you, our family, to stand with us in affirming Black lives. Not just all lives. Black lives. Please do not change the conversation by talking about how your life matters, too. It does, but we need less watered down unity and a more active solidarities with us, Black people, unwaveringly, in defense of our humanity. Our collective futures depend on it.
Ferguson Action is asking individuals to declare 2015 their “year of resistance.”
I pledge to make 2015 my year of resistance to state violence against Black lives.
I challenge myself and those in my community to take risks as we confront the many ways that Black lives are diminished and taken from us….
This year, I will declare boldly and loudly through my words and actions, that #BlackLivesMatter.
—Ferguson Action Pledge
Does Exodus — with its powerful examples of resistance — call us to anything less?
In the mid-20th Century, the Exodus story (neither Charlton Heston nor Christian Bales, but the second book of the bible) became part of the underpinnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Today, as a new civil rights movement evolves, how can we use the ancient Exodus narrative to once again help us explore key issues and increase understanding and involvement?
A coffin in Egypt closes the Book of Genesis (Genesis 50:26), and the Exodus story is launched with a basket on the Nile (Exodus 2:3). Joseph’s death, which closely follows that of his father, Jacob (Gen 49:33), brings to an end the patriarchal stories. With Exodus, the focus shifts to the Israelite story, beginning with midwives Shifrah and Puah, Yocheved (Moses’ mother), Miriam (Moses’ sister), and Pharaoh’s daughter. Our focus is thus shifted, as one book ends and the next begins, from death to birth and from stories of individual and family struggle to a communal struggle toward liberation. So, too, in the United States today, we are moving:
- from individual circles of mourning for black persons killed by police to a national movement against police brutality across the country, and
- from disjoint demands addressing various forms of racial inequity to a collective struggle for racial justice.
In addition, men dominate at the close of Genesis, while Exodus opens with women in the lead; similarly, women have been primary leaders in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
The Exodus story looks, on the face of it, like a violent and permanent parting of oppressed and oppressor peoples. But there are elements — particularly evident in watching what the women do at the beginning of the Exodus story — of the tale that can help us learn respectful coexistence.
Change of Mindset
Failure to dehumanize: The Egyptian midwives model for us at Exodus 1:15-22, using Pharaoh’s racist assumptions about the baby-popping Hebrew women to protect the Israelite community. (more on this)
Vision: Moses’ mother shows immense faith in her Egyptian neighbors, assuming that someone will rescue the child. And at least one Egyptian does rescue a child. Both women, thereby, refuse to dehumanize the other. (more on vision)
Passover is still months away (April 3-April 11, 2015). But Jews and Christians, along with others to whom the Exodus story speaks, can begin now to explore how we can use this ancient tale to change today’s realities, in our own communities and beyond. A few more “Passover Lessons” —
- “From Privilege, Activism
- Maybe We’re All Riff Raff
- Rabbis, Rome and Slaves
- “School for Freedom”
— from a 2012 crowd-sourcing.
What else can we learn?
Let’s start now to figure it out!
And let’s NOT WAIT to begin learning and acting
The Joseph story, which begins in this week’s Torah portion raises questions about language, about power and how it is used, and about the possibility of learning an entirely new narrative about a story of which we are a part:
- How does the language we use, even inside our own heads, affect the way we view an encounter?
- How does the way one individual is described affect our views of others who share some background with that individual?
- What does it mean for one person or group of persons to have power over another? Is it as changeable as a garment? Do we recognize when we are wearing a garment of power?
- Do we sometimes pretend a sense of brotherhood when it suits us and drop it when it doesn’t?
- Can we, today — like the biblical Joseph — create circumstances that lead to a “dizzying awareness of new narrative” that leads to different action?
- Do we, as individuals or as part of a collective, try to settle for our own peace, even if we know others are suffering? How hard do we, like the biblical Jacob, work to remain oblivious to strife before us, even if we helped engender it?
Finally: what does this portion say about “living in the midst of history” and entering the eight days of Chanukah, designed to bring us out of the lowest level of light?
“Church synagogue have failed. They must repent….We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel telegraphed to President John F. Kennedy on July 16, 1963. Heschel called on the president to declare a “state of moral emergency.”
Heschel told Kennedy that race problems were “like the weather: Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it.” He then asks the president to issue a variety of demands:
Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogue have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
— telegram can be found here, along with additional study resources on related topics from the American Jewish World Service’s “on1foot” pages.
Fifty years later, some of Heschel’s suggestions may sound odd. Do we ever speak of “national repentance,” for example? But his call for declaring a “moral emergency” in this country seems all too appropriate:
- police brutality is a both a legal and a moral emergency;
- suppression of the press is a constitutional emergency;
- and the underlying racism is an emergency on every level.
Is any Jewish, or other faith, leader making a similar call at this time? (Please share any such.)
Perhaps individual faith community members must call out to their leaders. And I think we can start by asking our faith communities to ensure that Ferguson MO — and every other police department in this country — gets the message: “The whole world is watching.”
Some “actions” and study materials
Amnesty International’s call for investigation of police brutality
Change.Org petition to U.S. Atty Genl for national action on police brutality
Jews for Racial and Economic Justice Campaign Against Police Brutality
See also, high schoolers’ new mobile app to rate law enforcement