Rethinking Exodus for Joint Liberation

Update: please visit Rereading4liberation.com where you will find conversations with around related issues and a “daily short” 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 Anchor — https://anchor.fm/virginia-spatz

The second, coming soon, will focus on “Didn’t Know Joseph”/DontMuteDC.

This podcast is available on Spotify and other platforms, and it would be very helpful if you liked and commented wherever you listen, so others can find it.
Also please share directly.

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.

Vayikra, The Rona/COVID-19, and Mutual Aid

We can learn several important things about this time of coronavirus pandemic, and related upheaval, from the start of this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-5:6).

Honoring Prior Collective Work

The Book of Exodus closes with completion of the mobile worship center, the “Tabernacle,” constructed by the People in the wilderness. This construction takes place over the course of many chapters in Exodus and involves all whose hearts move them” contributing their talents, their time, and their resources (See, e.g., Exodus 25:1ff). It is from within that collectively created Tabernacle that God calls to Moses at the start of the Book Leviticus.**

Similarly, the Torah is calling to us this week (5780/2010) to notice and make use of collectively created structures within our communities, including our Mutual Aid Networks.

Throughout the United States, communities have their own structures and local leaders. Many efforts at dealing with crises do not work within these community structures, however, instead making use of top-down, charity-driven models. Mutual aid, on the other hand, is volunteer-run, transparent, and driven by needs expressed by community members. (See e.g., “What is Mutual Aid.”) Joining up with your area’s Mutual Aid Network, if one exists, is a crucial way to help your area get through this serious upheaval in a way that respects all concerned.

Traditional Jewish teaching suggests that God calls to Moses out of the Tabernacle to emphasize that the structure had been built to benefit the People, not to exclude them (Artscroll Chumash, citing “Ramban, etal” — Ramban is a teacher from 13th Century Spain). In this spirit, we must endeavor to ensure that actions we take around this crisis benefit, rather than exclude, and do not undermine collectively created community structures.

Calling, Learning, and Being Small

Over the centuries, many have noted the oddly tiny final letter (alef) in the first word of the Torah portion —
Vayikra

Teachings around this oddity emphasize the connection between humility – making oneself “small” — and learning.*** In addition, some suggest, we can look at the relative size of the letters, imagining that God’s voice is loud and powerful enough to be heard everywhere but Moses played an important role in conveying it to the People.

In this spirit, the Torah is reminding us to be small enough to listen carefully when called.

That means paying attention to experienced organizers who have direct contact with the communities most affected by this crisis and working with those already in the struggle. This might mean joining a Mutual Aid Network or lending one your support. Or it might mean listening and responding in another way. But it will require listening

A More Specific Call

Many of us have favorite charities and crisis-relief organizations we regularly support. Some would like to offer direct support but know they cannot give to everyone who asks, fear that donations may not be used in an efficient and accountable way, and feel at sea about giving in time of such overwhelming need. This is another area in which using and honoring our existing community structures is crucial.

As a long-time resident of southeast DC, I know the captains of the ward units for Wards 6 and 7/8 within DC’s Mutual Aid Network; I also know the captain for Ward 2 in Northwest and have met the others. I can personally recommend giving these people your time, money, and trust. Probably someone somewhere in your personal contacts knows the people running other units in DC or near where you live. And, if not, I believe Vayikra is telling us, in this specific time, to trust the organizers most closely tied to those most vulnerable in this crisis.

Moreover, in DC government and other institutions are sending those who request help to the Mutual Aid Networks. So, these home-grown efforts need our support right now.

This blog is not set up to provide information on Mutual Aid Networks everywhere. But it is set up to suggest that Jews, and others interested in a text- and action-based view of Bible study, look at what Vayikra is telling us about seeking out and supporting existing community structures.

Just one Example

Mutual Aid Networks are growing in many areas, and, as noted, this blog is not set up to keep on top of them all. Please seek out your local area MAN. As an example for readers anywhere, and for readers local to DC, here are some direct requests from local organizers.

Needs identified include the usual: fruit and vegetables, bread, toilet paper, sandwich meat, snacks, bottled water, frozen meats, potatoes, rice, hot dogs, buns, diapers, pull-ups, wipes, bleach, rubbing alcohol, gloves — basically, every item that you purchased for yourself and your household.

In addition, community members in the District express needs for

  • computers
  • materials needed by children and teens for their educations.

These resources are taken for granted in some areas but sorely lacking in others. Accessible and free access to the internet is also needed — and financial contributions toward that goal are welcome.

In or near DC’s Ward 6, drop items off at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St. SE, 9am-9pm. Additional sites are in the works.

Financial donations can be made earmarked for “Mutual Aid Network” to Serve Your City DC.

Contact ward6mutualaid@gmail.com or 202-683-9962 with questions or for updates on sites in other areas of Ward 6.

NOTES
**

And he called to Moses, and YHVH spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting…
וַיִּקְרָא, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה; וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֵלָיו, מֵאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד לֵאמֹר
— Lev 1:1

It is clear that the “he” (in “(and) he called”) is God calling from inside the Tent of Meeting, which was just completed at the end of the Book of Exodus. The verse is usually rendered something like “And the LORD called to Moses.” The portion, the first in Leviticus, is comprised of Leviticus 1:1-5:6.

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***
The Hebrew word “ileif” —
אִלֵּף

has the same root letters as “alef

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The Day Clears Away: Daf Yomi #1

3

The day clears away, [as people say], The sun has set and the day has cleared away.
— B. Talmud Berakhot 2b

‘The evening wore on’ — that’s a very nice expression, isn’t it? With your permission I’ll say it again: ‘The evening wore on.’
— Elwood P. Dowd, “Harvey” (1950)

Some thoughts on Berakhot 2B, as Daf Yomi (page/day study of the Babylonian Talmud in 7-1/2 years) begins anew, Jan 5, 2020.

NOTE: This blog was updated with additional references on 1/6/20.

The Day Clears Away

“The day clears away” is an expression used in several translations of today’s page. The rabbis are discussing when evening occurs, in the context of determining “from what time one recites the Shema in the evening.” In the process, Lev. 22:6-7 is cited as an example in the Torah of evening’s onset: When a priest has come in contact with certain types of ritual impurity, he is ritually unclean until evening…

וּבָ֥א הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וְטָהֵ֑ר
and when sunset comes, v’taheir [he/it shall be clean]
— Lev. 22:7

In the Leviticus verse, “וְטָהֵ֑ר v’taheir” is generally translated as “he [the priest] is clean” or “he will become clean.” Taheir can also mean “to be cleared away” or “to be gone,” however, and a bit of grammatical minutia suggests that perhaps the DAY clears away.

That English expression caught my attention for its sheer, if ambiguous, beauty. A few Hebrew/Aramaic notes appear below. Meanwhile, some thoughts prompted by the expression itself and its repetition in the discussion.

The Evening Wore On

At one point in the 1950 movie, “Harvey,” Jimmy Stewart’s character pauses to savor and repeat another evening-focused phrase:

At first, Dr. Chumley seemed a little frightened of Harvey, but that gave way to admiration as the evening wore on…’the evening wore on’ — that’s a very nice expression, isn’t it? With your permission I’ll say it again [Dowd pauses, as if actually tasting the words]: ‘The evening wore on.’
— Elwood P. Dowd to Dr. Chumley’s co-workers
— 1:00 mark in this clip from Turner Classic Movies; more on “Harvey,”

Evening Wore On

from “Harvey” (1950): “…the evening wore on.”

This may seem far afield from the Berakhot page, but Dowd’s love of language and the images it conveys strikes me as not unlike the Talmud’s love of Torah and the possibilities of its language. The comparison also highlights the fluidity of the Middle English participle describing a process, the “coming on of even,” a period of becoming dark — something like the rabbis’ complex and fluid experience of evening. In addition, Ber 2b includes its own bit of popular culture.

Sources of “Evening”

In “How to Read the Talmud,” Rabbi Benay Lappe writes that the Rabbis of the Talmud hoped we would hear them urging us:

“…Use our methodology. Be courageous and bold, like we were, and know that what you are doing may seem radical, but is deeply Jewish — and deeply traditional.”
— “How to Read the Talmud: Why this classic work of law, stories and wisdom isn’t really about any of those things”

Rabbi Lappe teaches us to explore HOW the rabbis made decisions as much as the decisions themselves. In this spirit, it is interesting that we see on the first page of the Talmud such a variety of sources:

  • Natural: ‘evening’ is sometime between the sun’s setting and the appearance of stars;
  • Practical: ‘evening’ is the end of the work day, or the chance to rest;
  • Torah: ‘evening’ is as mentioned in instructions around the priesthood;
  • Historical: ‘evening’ is when the priests actually used to immerse and then eat;
  • Linguistic: perhaps ‘evening’ is when ritual impurity “clears” with the end of the day, or maybe how the day itself “clears”;
  • Reasoning: ‘evening’ is defined in a logical compromise encompassing several avenues of thought and tradition
  • People say: ‘evening’ is as popular understanding has it, when the “day is past” or “cleared away.”

As we attempt to learn, and eventually learn to implement, rabbinic methodology, it seems noteworthy that what “people say” appears as a source for understanding and decision-making on the very first page of this project.


Notes

B. Berakhot 2b:

מַאי ״וְטָהֵר״ — טְהַר יוֹמָא, כִּדְאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי: ״אִיעֲרַב שִׁמְשָׁא וְאִדַּכִּי יוֹמָא״
What is the meaning of we-taher [v’taheir]? The day clears away, conformably to the common expression, The sun has set and the day has cleared away.
— Soncino translation

Conformably. Soncino has this phrase, while others use the more straightforward “as people say.” Frank‘s Practical Talmud Dictionary notes that “כִּדְאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי” means “people say” and “is used to introduce a popular saying.”

Cleared away. Jastrow Jackpot for דְּכִי:

2) to be cleared away, be removed, be gone. Ber 2b: אִדַּכִּי יוֹמָא the day is past v. טְהַר
— Jastrow, p. 307 left, under Ithpa


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REFERENCES
In recognition that the movie version of “Harvey” is now 70 years old and that maybe not everyone has most of it memorized, an IMDB link, a Wikipage, and a few words of background:

Harvey is an invisible, magical, 6′ 3.5″ rabbit who spends a great deal of time with his friend, Elwood P. Dowd. Elwood seems to have no lack of financial means, enjoys many a drink at local watering holes and makes many friends. He sums up his situation at one point:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Elwood’s family believes his odd ways threaten his niece’s chance for a good match and try to have him committed. But the asylum director, Dr. Chumley, leaves with Harvey, leading to the “evening wears on” scene in this clip.

More on Harvey and Elwood in a drash given on Yom Kippur 5775.


RETURN to evening


Frank, Rabbi Yitzhak. The Practical Talmud Dictionary. Jerusalem: Koren, 1991. Third edition Maggid (Koren imprint), 2016.

Jastrow, Prof. Marcus. Dictionary of Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, Midrashic Literature and Targumim. New York: Pardes Publishing House, 1950. (originally published, 1903)
RETURN to NOTES

More on Daf Yomi

Fugitive Slave Act and Deuteronomy

You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.
He shall live with you in any place he may choose among the settlements in your midst, wherever he pleases; you must not ill-treat him.
לֹא-תַסְגִּיר עֶבֶד, אֶל-אֲדֹנָיו, אֲשֶׁר-יִנָּצֵל אֵלֶיךָ, מֵעִם אֲדֹנָיו.
עִמְּךָ יֵשֵׁב בְּקִרְבְּךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר-יִבְחַר בְּאַחַד שְׁעָרֶיךָ–בַּטּוֹב לוֹ; לֹא, תּוֹנֶנּוּ.
— Deuteronomy 23:16-17 (Christian Bible number differs here*)

…any person who shall knowingly and willingly obstruct, hinder, or prevent such claimant, his agent or attorney, or any person or persons lawfully assisting him, her, or them, from arresting such a fugitive from service or labor, . . . or shall harbor or conceal such fugitive, . . . shall be subject to a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars, and imprisonment not exceeding six months….
–Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (full text scroll down to “AN ACT TO AMEND…’An Act Respecting Fugitives from Justice…'”; see also Zinn Education Project)

September 18 marked the signing into law of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, requiring the capture and return of people who had escaped from slavery. This law meant additional danger for people who had escaped from slavery, as well as for free black people who were often misidentified, sometimes deliberately, as escapees. It also endangered those who had been aiding enslaved persons escaping to free states. Many historians note, however, that this law made it harder for people in Free States to remain “neutral” or silent in the face of mass, state-sanctioned enslavement. Forcing more citizens to recognize their complicity helped precipitate the Civil War and a formal end to legal slavery in the U.S.

Meanwhile, the Jewish calendar just prompted reading of Deut. 23:16-17 last week (Parashat Ki Teitzei, 9/14/19). So this seems a good time to reflect on these verses and what they teach about our history and our future.

Scripture and Fugitive Slaves

In opposition to the Fugitive Slave Laws, Christian abolitionists regularly referenced the verses in Deuteronomy forbidding the return to slavery of someone who had escaped (a few citations).

Pro-slavery Christians argued, to the contrary: “…the immorality attributed to the fugitive slave law resolves itself into the assumed immorality of slaveholding. No man would object to restoring an apprentice to his master;…” (see Cotton is King cited below).

Some 19th Century Christians interpreted the “fugitive slave” scriptures as referencing very limited circumstances inapplicable to then-contemporary situations. Their arguments, even when sources are not cited, suggest familiarity with traditional Jewish commentary on these verses. Many Jewish teachings, from ancient times to the present, support humane treatment of all people, call on Jews to “remember you were once slaves in Egypt,” and were interpreted in ways supportive of Abolition. These particular verses, however, appear to have been interpreted in very narrow ways, none of which would be helpful to an abolitionist.

A brief review of Jewish discourse before and during the U.S. Civil War — see, e.g., this Yeshiva University site and these brief related video histories — finds that Jews in the public sphere focused on universal human rights, rather than arguing scripture with the Christian majorities.

Jews in the Public Sphere

It is worth noting, in the context of how Jews spoke publicly, that what is now considered “American Judaism” — or, perhaps more accurately: American Judaisms — did not yet exist at the close of the Civil War. There were no major Jewish organizations in the United States until the latter part of the 19th Century:

  • the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) was founded in 1873, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 1889;
  • the (Conservative) Jewish Theological Seminary was established in 1886 and the associated Rabbinical Assembly in 1901; and
  • the Orthodox Union was founded in 1898;

Other organizations, such as the immigrant aid society (HIAS), were founded decades after the Civil War was over. Most organizations that help create a public Jewish voice are far newer. The time seems overdue, however, for gathering collective Jewish energies, beginning with sacred text and its interpretations, to consider current implications of Deut 23:16-17:

You shall not turn over to his master
a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.
He shall live with you in any place he may choose
among the settlements in your midst,
wherever he pleases;
you must not ill-treat him.

Does Deut 23:16 have implications regarding policing today?
What might Deut 23:17 mean for Reparations?

We’ve got text to study and work to do…






NOTE:
*Deuteronomy Chapter 22 has 29 verses in the Hebrew Bible, while Christian bibles have 30 verses. As a result, the same verses that Jews identify as Deut 23:16-17 are numbered 23:15-16 in Christian bibles.

Here is Fox’s translation, known for its attempt to reproduce rhythm and word-choices of the Hebrew original, to aid in discussion:

16) You are not to hand over a serf to his lord
who has sought-rescue by you from his lord.
17) Beside you let him dwell, among you,
in the place that he chooses, within one of your gates (that)
seems good for him;
you are not to maltreat him!


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Some Christian References

1836. Extracts from remarks on Dr. Channing’s Slavery, with comments, by an abolitionist. Boston. Published D.K. Hitchcock 1836 (available through archive.org). More on Channing’s Slavery by William Ellery Channing (1780-1842).

1850.A sermon on Moses’ fugitive slave bill” William Makepeace Thayer (1820-1898). Sermon.

1851. “The Duty of Disobedience to Wicked Laws: A Sermon on the Fugitive Slave Law” by Charles Beecher. Newark, NJ. (free ebook).

1855. Letter from Anthony Burns to the Baptist Church

1859. The Sin of Sending Back Fugitives from Slavery. The Oberlin Evangelist

And: Black Prophets of Justice: Activist Clergy Before the Civil War
By David E. Swift (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1989).

BUT ALSO: 1860. Cotton is King and Pro-Slavery Arguments; comprising the writings of Hammond, Harper, Christy, Stringfellow, Hodge, Bledsoe, and Cartwright, on this important subject, by E. N. Elliott… (free ebook)

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Jewish Commentary

When the Talmud (compiled by around 500 CE, including many far older traditions) discusses Deut 23:16, one interpretation is that the verse is speaking of someone who buys a slave in order to emancipate them; another is that it refers to a slave who escaped from outside the Land and sought refuge in Eretz Yisrael (Yeb 93b and Gittin 45a). Elaborations over the centuries add the assumption that the latter is meant to keep someone who sough refuge from a heath environment from being returned there.

Another thread of commentary suggests that, given the surrounding context in Deuteronomy, the verses originally referenced war-time, when slaves might use the confusion to escape (e.g., Chizkuni, 13th Century CE).

Ramban (Nahmanides), 1194-1270 Spain, combines above interpretations and then adds both a “moral” and a “practical” sense:

An escaped slave. During a siege of an enemy city, it is common for slaves and prisoners to try and escape to the “liberators.” The Torah commands Israel that such escapees must be give their freedom and permitted to settle wherever they wish in Eretz Yisrael. In the moral sense, for the nation that maintains the holiness of its camp — as required by the above passage — to send a man seeking his freedom back to a life of idolatry would be most unseemly. In the practical sense, people seeking asylum often become important allies of the invaders, because they reveal valuable information that will help in the conquest.

The only responsa on the fugitive slave law which I could find is actually the Reform Movement arguing that Deut. 23:16-17 “permits the reception of proselytes.” American Reform Responsa: Collected Responsa of the Central Conference of American Rabbis 1889-1893.
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Three Prophets, Three Crises, Three Cries

Sometimes I look at a Torah commentary, whether ancient or contemporary or somewhere in between and my main thought is: “Whoa! That’s a lot of weight to put on one word.”

…I think of Humpty Dumpty telling Alice — while she is Through the Looking-Glass — that he always pays words extra when he makes them do a lot of work, like when he uses the word “impenetrability” to mean a full paragraph beginning, “we’ve had enough of that subject…”

As it is, though, words in the Torah regularly work pretty hard, anyway. Numbers Rabbah tells us, after all, that there are 70 modes of expounding every word. And it’s not uncommon for extended commentaries to hinge largely on one word.

Still I find myself hoping that the word “devarim” and colleagues have negotiated extra pay for all the overtime expected in the weeks ahead and that eichah has lots of seasonal bonus pay coming.

I was originally planning to discuss the word davar, which plays such an important role in the Book of Deuteronomy beginning with this week’s portion. (Some early notes on Davar and Devarim here in PDF.)

But I decided to give davar and put the word eichah/how to work instead. Here’s more on the word itself, and here’s a midrash linking three eichah verses: an ancient version, from Eichah Rabbah; one from the 15th Century, Akeidat Yitzchak; and my attempt at less gendered imagery.

Three Eichah Verses

The first verse is from today’s Torah reading. It appears in a passage (Deut. 1:9ff) in which Moses describes feeling beleaguered, stuck in an untenable situation. In the midst of this story, he recalls telling the People: “Eichah/How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?” Using the clunky 1917 JPS here purposely, to highlight the weirdness of the word טֹרַח [torach, cumbrance] which appears only in this verse and in the first chapter of Isaiah. (More on torach here.)

His recollection appears to conflate two previous incidents:

The first is in Exodus 18, when Yitro asks his son-in-law: “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” Yitro then suggests, and Moses implements, a system of 70 judges to share judicial burden.

The second is in Numbers 11, when the People complain about lacking meat and Moses tells God: “I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me.” God commands a system of 70 elders to receive some of the spirit previously upon Moses, saying: “they shall bear the burden of the people with you, that you bear it not yourself alone.”

Here, in Deuteronomy, Moses doesn’t mention either Yitro’s suggestion or God’s command, instead describing a system of captains and officers that appears to be his own invention.

This shift in the cast of characters has many implications, but today I want to hone in on the trouble in the community represented by that one word Moses uses in describing his frustration.

To the ancient Rabbis, the desperate-sounding “eichah” that Moses employs in the desert resonated with later experiences in Isaiah’s time and in Jeremiah’s. The Rabbis arranged three readings, over less than a week in the Jewish calendar, using that same cry.

As the midrash suggests the three eichahs indicate escalating disaster:

  • from the People — and Moses, in his own way — behaving badly enough in the desert that a breaking point threatens,
  • to the People in Jerusalem behaving so badly that God is ready to snap; and finally,
  • to complete loss of the central community institution, with destruction of the Temple and exile of the People, and the related loss of social order.

Although the midrash does not add this, we know that what looks like total destruction is not the end. Destruction of the First Temple resulted in a Judaism built on the experience of Exile, and then, after destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbinic Judaism that we practice today. The eichah in our three texts suggests a “how” of transformation to be learned from each stage — as well as messages for each stage to be found in reading them together.

Escalating Disaster

In Deut 1:12, Moses moves pretty quickly from perception of a problem to solution. But the eichah points to an element of the situation we might otherwise miss: mutual despair, with Moses and the People together in turmoil. Things sound pretty dire, at one point, but there is a turn-around. How? The People and Moses must refocus on basic principles: justice and organizing for sharing of burdens.

Similarly, in the Haftarah, the eichah hints at despair as the community and its systems are in peril. This time God seems to have reached a breaking point, declaring through Isaiah that the People are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers, while rituals have become so empty that God is hurt to the very quick. The remedy, the People are told again, is a refocusing on basic principles: How to avoid disaster? Learn to do good; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, atone for wrongs, clean up the mess.

The eichah of Lamentations however, is a breaking point without apparent remedy. The closest thing to repair we hear is that final plea: “Bring us back to You, HASHEM, and we shall return as in days of old.” How will this occur? On Tisha B’av, we don’t know yet. The author of Lamentations, and its original listeners, had not yet moved on from disaster and mourning to the period of betweenness and then transformation.

By asking us to read all three eichahs in short order — all on one weekend, as it happens, this year [5779] — we prepare for Tisha B’av’s “don’t know yet” with Shabbat Hazon’s “hows” of previous transformations. But it also, I think, warns us to be willing to sit with that “don’t know yet” in the other stages of disaster, outlined in the three-part midrash.

We have the instructional “how” of Deuteronomy and Isaiah in today’s readings, reminders of what we’re supposed to be doing in terms of individual and communal repair. But we can also make use of the desperate element in the “how” — taking time to process the grief and the worry, communities at the breaking point, rituals that don’t seem to serve their purpose any longer. Eichah?!

Transformations and the Grateful Dead

A few years ago, an essay in the Times of Israel suggested that we can also learn about the transformations of Judaism marked with Tisha B’av from the transformation of the Grateful Dead, following Jerry Garcia’s death. (What the Grateful Dead Can Teach Us About Tisha B’av at Times of Israel, 2017)

Then newly minted rabbi, Simeon Cohen, mentions “the Days Between,” from Jerry Garcia’s birthday, August 1, to his yahrzeit, August 9, in his essay and links this period to the Jewish calendar’s Nine Days of mourning at the start of Av.

“The Days Between” by the way, is celebrated around the world and has no intrinsic relationship to Tisha B’av or Judaism generally. “The Nine Days of Jerry” was launched in an orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem and specifically organized around the season of Av. Cohen’s essay doesn’t mention these details, so here is some background for those interested; meanwhile moving ahead to his punchline…

After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans, Yohanan ben Zakkai founded a new learning institution at Yavneh, and, eventually, Cohen writes, “an entirely new, revolutionary form of Judaism was born. It has now far outlasted its predecessor.” He likens this to the survival of Dead-related music after Jerry Garcia died in 1995. (As much as I appreciate the existence and publication of this essay, I find that it focuses more on the commercial success of Dead-related enterprises in the post-1995 years — along with the popularity of that worst of all Dead songs, “Touch of Gray” — rather than on survival of any kind of Deadly essence.)

Then, noting current issues, including tension between Israel and the Diaspora, Cohen concludes:

World Jewry is in the midst of an incredibly fraught moment…Yet I take comfort in the adaptive, evolutionary spirit of Yohanan ben Zakkai and the Grateful Dead. No matter how dark things become, we have always found a way to survive.

This is a comforting message. But I fear that it too quickly jumps toward that big change, skipping over crucial mourning and betweenness. The desire to do this is not unique to Cohen: it’s very common, and quite comforting in some ways, to jump toward solutions in order to avoid having to sit with mourning and betweenness. In doing so, however, we miss crucial lessons.

Another article on the Grateful Dead focuses more on the betweenness. And I don’t think it requires ever having heard two bars of Dead music to consider, as the author says: Grateful Dead music “has always been about listening to the transforming collective experience of the moment.” (See “Tuning In Together” by Granville Ganter)

Isn’t this also an aspect of what we do in group prayer? Through music, speech, and/or silence prayer helps us shape individual gratitude into collective praise, grief into commitment, and disasters into a future we cannot yet imagine. But, like listening to the Grateful Dead, prayer requires experiencing the moment — which sometimes means sitting with pain, anxiety, or uncertainty — and noticing the transformations happening inside it.

Combining Messages

Together the three eichah texts — along with Rabbi Cohen’s Grateful Dead analogy — remind us that nothing stays the same for long, that growth comes with new burdens, that living in community and pursuing a vision is hard work. We have to adapt, learn to do good in changing circumstances, seek justice over and over again.

The calendar is built to remind us:
the three weeks of chastising prophetic readings come every year; followed by the lowest day of the year, Tisha B’av; and then the slow climb up through the seven weeks of comfort, including Elul’s wake-up calls, toward the new year.

Today’s reading from Isaiah, built into that cycle, warns us now that it won’t be enough in the coming holiday season to check off the days — skip a few meals, listen to the shofar, give tzedakah donations, recite the proper words — none of that, by itself, will create change, for us or for the wider world.

Today’s Torah reading, also a part of this cycle, cautions us to take a look at our communities now — before we head into the season of repair and return — to notice if the burdens and spirit and power are balanced in healthful ways, or if we are facing more disaster ahead.

Shabbat Hazon asks us to envision something different for the coming year.

Tisha B’av asks us to sit with mourning and betweenness.

And the combination of the two suggests the possibility of true transformation.


NOTES

More on “eichah

The Hebrew word אֵיךְ [eich, how] — an adverb/interrogative with an incredulous, negative connotation (the Evan Shoshan concordance calls it “question of rebuke”), appears six times in Genesis and Exodus. For example: when Abimelech says to Isaac: “…she’s your wife! so how then did you say ‘she is my sister’!” (Gen 26:9), and when Moses says to God: “…the children of Israel haven’t listened to me, so how will Pharaoh hear me, of uncircumcised lips?” (Exod 6:12).

The word does not appear at all in Leviticus or Numbers. This form (including v’eich, וְאֵיךְ) appears 55 times in the Prophets and Writings.

The form eichah אֵיכָה first appears in Deuteronomy, where it is used five times, beginning with 1:12. This is more than in any other book, even the Book of Lamentations (Eichah), where it appears four times. The use in Isaiah, included in the midrash above, is the only appearance in that book. This form of the word shows up an additional seven times in the Tanakh: in Judges, 2 Kings, Song of Songs (twice in one verse), and Psalms, along with twice in Jeremiah.

In total, the Evan Shoshan Concordance only lists 78 occurrences of eich/eichah, plus four instances of “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah,” which appears twice in the Book of Esther and twice in Song of Songs. (Strong’s lists 82 occurrences, including all three forms — it’s nice when they match!)

“How?!” is not among the rarest words in the Tanakh, but it’s unusual (and IMO interesting.)

Regarding the less usual “אֵיכָ֖כָה eichachah” form, see also “The World is Like a Poem” by Annabelle Farmelant.”

Three-Part Eichah Midrash in Three Versions

from Eichah Rabbah:
Three prophesied with the language of eichah: Moses, Isaiah and Jeremiah.* Moses said, (Deut 1:12), “How (eichah) will I carry alone…” Isaiah said, (Isa 1:21) “How (eichah) she has become a prostitute…” Jeremiah said, (Lam 1:1) “How (eichah) does she dwell…” Said

Rabbi Levi: It is compared to a noble woman who had three friends. One saw her at peace, one saw her in her recklessness, and one saw her in her degradation

  1. So did Moses see Yisrael in their honor, and in their tranquility, [yet] he said, “How will I carry their burden alone?”
  2. Isaiah saw them in their recklessness, and he said “How she has become a prostitute…”
  3. Jeremiah saw them in their degradation, and he said, “How does she dwell…”

Eichah Rabbah 1(Roman Palestine) via sefaria

*NOTE: The assumption here is that Jeremiah wrote Lamentations. There are additional uses of “eichah” in the Tanakh, but they are not “prophecies.”
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Akeidat Yitzchak (15th Century CE Spain) offers the same parable with the noble woman first “at the height of her beauty and wealth,” then “committing excesses,” and finally “in disgrace.” — this is based on the older midrash: Eichah Rabbah 1 (Roman Palestine).
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One more version:
It’s hard to de-gender the biblical images, but perhaps we can rethink the midrash as three stages at which the prophets meet Yisrael:

  1. Moses knew them during a carefree period (God and the People are “honeymooning” in the desert) but was still prompted to cry “How…”;
  2. Isaiah knew them when they were treating greater riches carelessly and warned them about power imbalances;
  3. Jeremiah knew them at a time of complete disaster and cried out at their misery, not recognizing their carefree, even careless, past.


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Torach

In addition to sharing the word “eichah” with the only verse in Isaiah to use “eichah,” as discussed above, Deuteronomy 1:12 shares the word “torach” with the only verse in Isaiah (or anywhere else in the Tanakh) to use that word. (“Torach” only appears in these two verses in Tanakh.)

חָדְשֵׁיכֶם וּמוֹעֲדֵיכֶם שָׂנְאָה נַפְשִׁי
הָיוּ עָלַי לָטֹרַח; נִלְאֵיתִי, נְשֹׂא
Your new moons and your appointed seasons fill Me with loathing;* They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them.
— Isaiah 1:14

אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי,
טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם
How can I bear unaided
the trouble of you, and the burden,
and the bickering!
— Deuteronomy 1:12

*This is the “New JPS” (Jewish Publication Society), 1985. The 1917 “Old JPS” has “My soul hateth,” following KJV (King James Version), for “loathing” here; Alter has “utterly despises,” noting that he incorporated into the verb phrase the intensity of the subject’s added נַפְשִׁי nafshi [my soul].

טָרְחֲכֶם, tarchakhem — the trouble of you. טֹרַח, torach is usually translated in Isaiah 1:14 as “burden,” while the same Hebrew word, as it appears in Deuteronomy here, is translated as “trouble” or “(heavy) load,” or, in the old JPS and the KJV: “cumbrance.”

In the earlier version of Moses’ complaint about the people being too heavy to bear (Numbers 11:11), the Hebrew is מַשָּׂא, massa, regularly translated in that verse — as well as here (following “trouble of you” above) — as “burden.” Massa is a far more common word than torach.


The Nine Days (of Av), The Nine Days of Jerry, and the Days Between

Since 2008 at least, music promoters have been marking what was originally called “Jerry week” (although nine days), between the August 1 birthday and August 9 death date of Jerry Garcia (1942-1995). More recently, fans have been marking what are now called “the Days Between.” Locally, for example, the Hamilton Live venue has been celebrating for three years now. While plenty of Jews celebrate, “the Days Between” don’t have the same Jewish resonance of the “Nine Days of Jerry.”

In 2010, Lorelai Kude, a huge Dead fan with a sense of personal connection to the band and to Jerry, in particular, launched the “Nine Days of Jerry” on her audio streaming program called “Radio Free Nachlaot” (RFN). She had started RFN, named for her Jerusalem neighborhood and using the tagline “Where Shlomo meets Jerry,” the year before.

I met Lorelai at a Jewish Deadhead camp of sorts, “Blues for Challah,” at Camp Isabella Freedman in 2011. It seemed clear that the Nine Days of Jerry were, for her, more than simply a chance to reflect and remember — as Rabbi Cohen describes “the Days Between” in his essay, and as many fans experience the period — but much more of a marking of Jerry’s yahrzeit and an attempt to deal with major loss, both relating to the Jewish calendar and to Jerry’s death and the subsequent changes in the Dead universe.

Many fans, Jewish and not, mark “the Days Between,” wherever they fall in the Jewish calendar. Lorelai and many of her listeners, however, avoid music in observance of the Nine Days (of Av). Depending on how August and Av line up, RFN is frequently shut down entirely, in mourning, while others are celebrating. This year, the Nine Days of Jerry begin August 12.
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World Like a Poem

Annabelle Farmelant, a U.S.-based writer, who published books of Hebrew verse in 1960 and 1961, focused a number of her poems on what words — especially in Hebrew’s gendered language — can and cannot do:

The world is like a poem
in all its glory,
even in the thick of its aches
terrors and cries
its grandeur is reflected.
Man enters the world like a wanderer
Like a wanderer man enters the world
and declares that he will roam
always, always.*
But how — he asks — just how**
— Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha —
does beauty rule a poem
when a line is erased?
How does splendor** shine
when its form is wiped out?
Man is not in these things
for a poem’s beauty is not in a line
an unnamed wanderer
in the world’s splendor***
Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores

*lanetzach. Forever or eternally, rather than perpetually.
**Eichacha — yisheil — eichacha. How — he asks — just how.
***tiferet ba-olam. splendor in the world. Tifereth is a feminine word for an attribute of the divine, one right at the center of the Kabbalist tree of life. tiferet ha-olam. splendor of the world

The translation is by Adriana X. Jacobs, from Women’s Hebrew Poetry on American Shores: Poems by Anne Kleiman and Annabelle Farmelant. (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2016). The notes are mine, and I’m including a few of the original Hebrew words. Additional information on Farmelant, including an article on her work by Jacobs. [UPDATE 8/30/19: Farmelant died in New York City on June 14, 2019 and was buried in Boston.]

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Eicha for my city and maybe for yours

Alas! How lonely sits the city
Once great with joyful people!
New horrors fill horizons now
while old pain never left
Each new loss diminishes
the streets themselves bereft

Bitterly we weep all night
cheeks wet with tears unseen
If we are to join together,
we must widen this choir of woe
When some cries are background noise
what’s the meaning of “friend” and “foe”?

City in despair right here,
Can Jewish space bring rest?
Refugees are some, just some,
of misery’s many faces
Public protest spreads the nation
are we stuck in narrow places?

Down our roads, more peril
desolation, violence, fear
systems that crush and jail
separate, cage, and hate
Borders come in many shapes
Too often closed, that welcome gate

Evidence mounts. Not in our name.
Closing camps, protecting neighbors and strangers –
that is work we are all called to do
But what about mutual care?
Or must we ignore some of our truths
in chasing a goal that we share?

Forging coalition is struggle, tougher in anguish.
Inside affliction, can we hear another cry?
It is painful and complex, but we must keep trying
trying to heed the whole sound
I know you can hear it, God once declared loudly:
that voice of a sibling crying up from the ground

–V. Spatz, songeveryday.org CC-BY-SA

Yes: We demonstrate publicly that Jews will not turn our backs on refugees arriving in this country and on immigrant neighbors already here. We support vigils and protest to #CloseTheCamps. Now!!
Can we not also:

  • Recognize many ways our country has long separated families, caged and brutalized people?
  • Cry with our local, national and international communities, refugees and not, who lend different voices to the chorus of “How lonely sits this place!”?
  • Send prayer energy to our many beleaguered communities, near and far?
  • Commit to exploring, in the days to come, ways in which we are complicit in so much suffering and ways we might take up action for repair?

“It is not ours to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it” — Pirkei Avot 2:16

Here’s a PDF of this post, should anyone want to print a single page.Eichah for my city maybe yours

How Does the Faithful City Harbor Murderers?!

Eichah?! How is it that our city is now the home of murderers? That’s one question (Isaiah 1:21) we are asked in the prophetic reading (Isaiah 1:1-27) for the Shabbat before Tisha B’av, the day of mega-mourning in the Jewish calendar. It’s one that many in the District of Columbia, and other cities in the U.S., are asking ourselves this year, as in years past.

In DC, we recently lost an 11-year-old child, Karon Brown, who spent his summer days selling water and Gatorade on the street; Jamal Bandy, a 27-year-old assistant coach at the rec center where Karon played; and a 17-year-old student and poet, Ahkii Washington-Scruggs, who wrote shortly before his death:

In D.C., it’s nothing but people trying to take your life away
I’m from a city where it’s a blessing to see the age 20

These are just three of the 96 lost to violence since January inside our city limits. This doesn’t count the many more injured in gun violence, the communities traumatized, the educations disrupted, and the constant grief and fear in which some parts of the city live…while other neighborhoods are free to enjoy the city, tuning in or out, at will, to the dreadful conditions a short distance away.

In Isaiah’s frightful prophecy, we are told that two true things are:

1) we are a rotten mess, harboring thieves and murderers while hiding behind empty rituals, and

2) we can stop adding more blood to our hands and turn things around:

And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you;
Though you pray at length, I will not hear; your hands are full of blood.
Wash you, make you clean, put away the evil of your doings from before My eyes, cease to do evil;
Learn to do well;
seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
— Isa 1:14-17 (JPS 1917 translation adapted)

Multiple Mournings

The state of my city is what I hear when first Moses, in the Torah reading for Shabbat Hazon (right before Tisha B’av; Deuteronomy 1:12), and then Isaiah (above), and finally Lamentations (read on Tisha B’av, which begins with nightfall on August 10), cry Eichah?!

So it is hard for me to enter into prayers on Tisha B’av, as Truah is calling us to do, to mourn in solidarity with immigrants and demand closing the camps, without also acknowledging the many other ways families have been torn apart, caged, and otherwise brutalized since the last Tisha B’av.

I strongly support Jews standing against the camps and witnessing that Never Again is Now. When non-Jews called for Lights for Liberty protests a few weeks ago, I advocated for bringing a strong Jewish presence to those events. But I don’t understand how it is — again, however unintentionally, that Eichah?! — that we can mourn for the one set of griefs, and atone for the one way in which our hands are bloody, without acknowledging the other… and the many other ways in which our country has been complicit in murder, here and abroad.

Last year, I joined the Truah Tisha B’av observance at Lafayette Park ONLY because I saw that DC’s listing included this statement: “…not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in prison for months on end, is brutally murdered by police—we lament” (excerpts from the 2018 announcement below). In actual practice, however, it turned out that the focus was entirely on refugees except for some words around the mourners’ kaddish about local gun violence deaths.

Eichah?!: How is it that this second year of solidarity with refugees for Tisha B’av, there is still not one resource that Truah provides — as far as I can see; if I missed something someone please let me know — that allows Jews to mourn separations and cages and death in more ways than one?

Whether you or your community join a Truah event or pray and mourn in another way on Tisha B’av, please consider acknowledging the many ways our country has ripped families apart, caged, and otherwise brutalized refugees AND OTHERS. There is still time. I know we can do better.

Some resources that might be adapted to the purpose — or we can write new ones!





Eichah! How My city
אֵיכָה הָיְתָה לְזוֹנָה קִרְיָה נֶאֱמָנָה
מְלֵאֲתִי מִשְׁפָּט צֶ֛דֶק יָלִין בָּהּ וְעַתָּה מְרַצְּחִים׃
How is the faithful city become a harlot! She that was full of justice, righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. — Isaiah 1:21

לִמְדוּ הֵיטֵב דִּרְשׁוּ מִשְׁפָּט, אַשְּׁרוּ חָמוֹץ; שִׁפְטוּ יָתוֹם, רִיבוּ אַלְמָנָה
Learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. — Isa 1:17
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Excerpts from DC’s 2018 Truah co-sponsored Tisha B’av

Our grief is compounded by holding many overwhelming tragedies together in one day.

It is written that baseless hatred and paralyzing humility were the reasons the Holy Temple was destroyed. We read from the Book of Lamentations and bare witness, through our lament, to the horror of children separated from parents—not just on the southern border, but every time a parent is put in prison for months on end, is brutally murdered by police—we lament. In the face of the fear and uncertainty plaguing our immigrant communities, plaguing Black mothers who fear for their children’s safety, of Muslim children, witnessing daily state violence, of indigenous families, ripped from their land, we lament.
— full 2018 announcement; scroll down for Washington DC

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PS — Some Starting Points

Just a few resources that could be adapted

Materials with some beautiful and pertinent adaptable bits:

From this blog: