“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 […]
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 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
From “The Pharoah and the Frog” IN God’s Mailbox: More Stories about Stories in the Bible by Marc Gellman (NY: Beech Tree, 1996)
…While he was under the covers, [Pharaoh] heard a frog voice. “Let’s see now,” the frog voice said. “Plague number one was blood, then there were frogs (that’s how I got here), then fleas, then flies, then dead cows, then zits, and now we have the charming plague of ice balls with fire mixed in, and still you won’t let the people go? What a dope!”
…Then Moses put his arm around the Pharaoh’s shoulder and said to him quietly, “Listen to me, and listen well. This is the last time we will see each other. If you do not let my people go by this time tomorrow, the last plague will come and it will be so horrible you will never forget it. Don’t make God punish you and your people this way. You can’t win. You can’t stand against freedom, and you can’t stand against God.”
The Pharaoh said, “God has nothing to do with all this stuff. We are just having a run of bad luck, real bad luck!…Moses, if you are in Egypt tomorrow, I will have my soldiers find you and kill you, along with that frog!”
…after the ice balls with fireballs mixed in, after the locusts and after the darkness, every first-born person and animal died in all the land of Egypt. That day the Pharaoh cried a cry that was so loud that people all over Egypt heard him. That day the Pharaoh let the people go.
As Moses and his people walked out of Egypt with all their stuff and with all their animals, they did not cheer and they did not laugh and they did not sing. They saw how the plagues had ruined Egypt, and they were sad for the Egyptians, so they just left quietly.
The Pharaoh was alone. Between his tears he heard a frog way in the distance. The frog was croaking over and over, “You can’t stand against freedom, and you can’t stand against God!” — Exodus 7:14-12:36
This book and Gellman’s earlier volume, Does God Have A Big Toe? Stories about Stories in the Bible (NY: HarperCollins, 1989) are great companions to the Torah — for adult readers as well as for children. We’ve used this particular story for multi-age seders.
Click on the “WeeklyTorah” tag for more resources on the weekly portion throughout the year, or on a portion name for parashah-specific notes. (The series began with Numbers; posts for Genesis, Exodus and Leviticus are being drafted, week-by-week.) You can also zero-in on particular types of “Opening the Book” posts by clicking Language and Translation, Something to Notice, a Path to Follow, or Great Source in the tag cloud.