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.

Korach and Dysfunctional Systems

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Earlier this week, my town experienced a police-involved killing, and an elected representative of the community was on the scene shortly afterward. He told reporters he did not want to repeat he-said/she-said but was awaiting video and other evidence: “My job is to get the facts – what happened.”

I’m sure many readers know or can guess the specifics, but I’m leaving them out because I think this situation, like the tale of Korach and his followers — a narrative, which Jews read this week in the annual Torah cycle (Numbers 16:1-18:32), about community and power — has something more universal to teach.

The Official Job

My first thought on hearing this official say his job was to “get the facts” was: No, that’s the job of police detectives and journalists; your job is legislative, budgetary, and related responses to the town’s many challenges. I realized immediately, however, that my first thought came from a fantasy world.

Leaving the facts to journalists and police only works in a world where community members can rely on those individuals and their institutions to pursue the full story, where some level of trust exists.

Officials from some other parts of town have the luxury of sticking to the duties for which they were elected, the privilege of living and working where basic systems appear to be functioning — at least for the people they represent. In the hugely unlikely event that a police-involved killing (God forbid any more anywhere) were to arise on the streets of some other districts in town, elected representatives and constituents could continue their own work, while expecting investigative professionals to do theirs.

This particular official, however, operates amid systems which have long since ceased to function for too many of the people he represents.

So, what exactly is his job? Can it possibly be similar to those of his official colleagues?

The Rebellion

In the bible story, Korach and his followers accuse Moses and Aaron of exalting themselves over the congregation of God. Although teachers over the centuries have made efforts to find some merit in Korach’s argument, he remains the poster child for the evils of greed, self-aggrandizement, and self-interested politics.

We also read that Dathan and Abiram call Moses unfit to lead the People, given that his leadership has already resulted in them being condemned to die in the wilderness (Num 16:13). Just a few chapters earlier, God announced a punishment, following the incident of the spies, for all the adults: “your carcasses shall drop in this Wilderness. Your children will roam for forty years and bear your guilt…” (Num 14:32-33).

The argument from Dathan and Abiram fares no better, in the bible narrative, than Korach’s initial challenge, and the result is catastrophic:

So Moses stood up and went to Dathan and Abiram, and the elders of Israel followed him. He spoke to the assembly, saying, “Turn away from near the tents of these wicked men, and do not touch anything of theirs, lest you perish because of all their sins.” So they got themselves up from near the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, from all around….

When he finished speaking all these words, the ground that was under them split open. The earth opened its mouth and swallowed them and their households, and all the people who were with Korach, and the entire wealth.
— Num 16:26-27, 31-32

Things go from bad to worse in the bible story, and the Children of Israel eventually tell Moses: “Behold! we perish, we are lost, we are all lost….Will we ever stop perishing?” (Num 17:27-28)

Our Job

Every year when we come to this Torah portion, I find myself worrying about the failures of communication involved in the rebellions and wondering how differently things might have evolved, given better listening.

Why are Moses and Aaron, and God, so surprised and unhinged by the People’s lapse of faith (in the spies incident, previous portion)? What if God had just heard their worries instead of responding so negatively to their hesitation?

Why are Moses and Aaron, and God, unable to hear the people’s desperation and anger, in the face of completely failed expectations?

And what is our job, as community members — and, if appropriate, as Jews — whether we live in an area suffering from severe system break-down or not? How might better listening, and closer attention to circumstances behind complaints and rebellion, change things?

In All Your Gates

Instructions to appoint judges “for yourselves,” in “all your tribes,” or, more literally, “in all your gates,” opens the Torah portion Shoftim [judges] (Deut 16:18-21:9), and the famous line, “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof… [Justice, justice you shall pursue…],” follows:

שֹׁפְטִים וְשֹׁטְרִים,
תִּתֶּן-לְךָ
בְּכָל-שְׁעָרֶיךָ,
אֲשֶׁר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לְךָ, לִשְׁבָטֶיךָ; וְשָׁפְטוּ אֶת-הָעָם, מִשְׁפַּט-צֶדֶק.

Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, tribe by tribe; and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment.
— Deut. 16:18 (mechon-mamre.org; translation “Old JPS”)

Appoint yourselves judges and police for your tribes in all your settlements that God your Lord is giving you, and make sure that they administer honest judgment for the people.
— another translation, from Bible.Ort.Org

Last week at Temple Micah, the commentary discussed the emphasis, throughout Deuteronomy, on centralizing ritual. In contrast, we see here that judges and justices are to be local concerns.

Julia Watts Belser writes in Torah Queeries:

We are asked to find judges who recognize the landscape of our lives, who have lived in similar terrain and can help us navigate its cliffs and fissures. We are expected to come before judges who expect holiness within us and consequently find it – who know our goodness and consequently call it forth.
–“Setting Yourselves Judges,” pages 250-253

She notes that we all belong to many tribes – pointing out that for example, she is a bisexual rabbi with a disability and that queerness alone means belong both to one tribe and many. She asks how her white skin and wheels and Jewishness intersect, concluding that “no single judge will hold all our answers, and no single officer will provide us with a perfect map.”

I had hoped to discuss various tribes to which we all belong and how they intersect. Events forced my attention toward different local justice issues. But I wanted to share her commentary, which I found inspiring and hope to pursue further another time, before moving in the different direction I was led.

The words of Torah I did write are a bit much, in a number of ways, for one post. So look for more on this shortly.
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Meditations on Morning Blessings: Failure, Memory and Change

on the occasion of a bat mitzvah and a young military death, a prayer for mindfulness and action **

    In the midst of the Viet Nam War, the great folk-singer/writer Steve Goodman wrote: “Tonight there’s 50,000 gone in that unhappy land, and 50,000 Heart ‘n Souls being played with just one hand.” Today, here and around the world, there are still too many empty spaces in the lives of young people… too many un-drunk welcome-home beers, too many lives reduced to a photo on a t-shirt, too many unshared stories, and too many unmaterialized adulthoods.

    In memory of the lost and for the ones we might yet save, let us pray:

As we celebrate the flourishing of some young people in our community, let us be ever aware of our many youth with no such opportunities for learning, support, and affirmation… or even the chance to grow up.

Keep us mindful: when young people suffer injustice or die in violence — whether in wars, declared or otherwise, or in seemingly endless street violence — it is the elders who have failed.

In honor of the many who do not thrive or survive, let us redouble our prayers for justice and peace.
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Beyond Oppression: Passover Lessons

The Exodus story is not an obvious tale of oppressed and oppressor peoples learning to jointly create a more equal society. Instead the Israelites leave Egypt, taking Egyptian riches with them, and are chastised by their leader whenever they look back; the Egyptians suffer many plagues before Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go, and they endure further disaster when Pharaoh’s army is drowned in the Sea of Reeds. How can we use this violent and permanent parting as a model for overcoming a history of oppression and division to learn respectful coexistence?

I posed a Facebook query to this effect and was impressed at the range and depth of ideas in the off-the-cuff responses I received. I thought many seder tables might benefit from these suggestions for learning and discussion, and I wanted to post this before Passover in a way that others could access. Apologies for lack of citation and other sketchiness. All errors or failure to communicate friends’ brilliant thoughts are mine.
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Justice: God’s Promise or Ours? (Shoftim Prayer Links)

“We must learn how to study the inner life of the words that fill the world of our prayerbook,” Abraham Joshua Heschel told fellow rabbis in 1953. “A word has a soul, and we must learn how to attain insight into its life….We forgot how to find the way to the word, how to be on intimate terms with a few passages in the prayerbook. Familiar with all the words, we are intimate with none.”

In that spirit, I believe parashat Shoftim [judges] calls out for us to get a little more intimate with at least one word:

Tzedek — as in “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof… [Justice, justice you shall pursue…]” (Deut./Devarim 16:20).

The words tzedek [“justice” or “righteousness”] and tzadikim [“just” or “righteous” folk] feature frequently in the siddur and in the Book of Psalms, including a number of psalms recited regularly as part of the liturgy. Perhaps a few examples will provide insights into the soul of “tzedek.”
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