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.

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

This post is the new introduction to Until Oppression Stays Behind: Rereading Exodus toward more just and inclusive community building. Until Oppression Stays Behind is the promised redraft of last year’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.

Comments on the beta publication are most welcome.
Also seeking essays, sermons, or other thoughts — from Jews and non-Jews — for Until Oppression Stays Behind.
Contact songeveryday at gmail.

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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“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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Shemini: Great Source(s)-2

This may not seem immediately related to the portion, Shemini, in anyone else’s head. But Louis Armstrong — both voice and trumpet — has always sounded to me like a man who has experienced strange crossings with their share of harrowing times and losses…not unlike what the families of Aaron/Elisheva and Moses/Zipporah — and the Israelites, more generally — have been experiencing. For me, this is most evident on Moon River: