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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Exodus: from state violence to resistance to liberation

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.

Pledging Resistance?

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?
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Power, Language, and Settling: Questions from Joseph’s Story

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?


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Surrounded by Big Things: Jonah, Harvey, and Yom Kippur

One of the things we might notice about Jonah is that he’s a little hard to follow: one minute, minding his own business, in his own land, and next thing he’s on the way to Joppa, on the ship, in the hold, tossed out into the sea, in the fish’s belly; then in Nineveh; and finally sitting outside the city arguing with God about a gourd. In honor of Jonah and his varied travels, these remarks go a number of different places, and, in an even deeper homage to Jonah, I can’t really promise that we’ll understand the point in the end. But I do hope it will be an interesting ride.
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Maybe: Janis Joplin, the Chantels, and Jonah

“Maybe” is not always comfortable in a world that values black and white, in or out, yes or no. But the Book of Jonah, recited on Yom Kippur afternoon, suggests that coming to terms with “maybe” is a key lesson of these days between “it is written” and “it is sealed.” And two musical approaches to “Maybe” help illuminate Jonah’s struggles with concept.
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Chayei Sarah, Shabbat and Transgender Remembrance

Chayei Sarah (Genesis 23:1 – 25:18), begins:

וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים–שְׁנֵי, חַיֵּי שָׂרָה
And the life of Sarah was a hundred years and twenty years and seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah.

We have not heard from Sarah since Chapter 21, when she asked Abraham to send out the maid-servant Hagar and her child, Ishmael, born to Abraham. Midrash offers many suggestions for what happened to Sarah between that moment and her death, reported here. Avivah Zornberg suggests that Sarah died from an experience of “the reversibility of joy,” in relation to the Akedah [binding of Isaac]. (Genesis: The Beginning of Desire, [JPS, 1995], p. 399)

Without short-changing what Zornberg has to say about Sarah’s life and death — which I recommend everyone read — I thought this single idea of death by “reversibility of joy” worth considering…especially as we enter Shabbat tonight, with Transgender Remembrance Day ahead of us and weeks of turmoil behind us.
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Past, Present and Future in Teshuvah: Amichai, Zelda and the Pit

…The past is not a piece of
jewelry sealed in a crystal box
nor is it a snake preserved
in a bottle of formaldehyde—
The past trembles within the present
when the present falls
into a pit the past goes
with it —
when the past looks
toward heaven all of life
is upraised, even the distant past.
–Zelda, from “That Strange Night” (full text, notes)

The Pit

In a famous midrash, Joseph and his brothers return to Canaan to bury their father, and Joseph notices, by the side of the road, the pit where his brothers threw him decades before. Watching Joseph look into the pit, the brothers worry. They do not believe Joseph has forgiven their past deeds and continue to fear recriminations.

While the brothers in the midrash are fretting, however, Joseph recognizes the pit, despite its painful associations, as the source of all that happened to him later: his incarceration in Egypt, eventual rise to power, marriage and children; and, most importantly to the Genesis story, his ability to help his family when famine strikes their homeland.

Avivah Zornberg writes:

[Joseph] has gone to the trouble of returning to that place of his terror in order to bring closure to the old narrative. He makes the blessing for a personal miracle, claiming the site of his trauma as the site of redemption. By this act, he rereads the pit as a space of rebirth, transforming pain into hope. The grave has become a womb.
The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, p.319; Continue Reading