Who can say we’ve actually left Egypt? April 22, 1968 was the original launch date for the Poor People’s Campaign. As we approach the beginning of Passover, on April 22, 2016, the very basic demands of 1968 have yet to materialize. Can your seder, or your Passover week, include some moments to reflect on how […]


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” —

  • Crossers-Over
  • “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
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Now when a man becomes aware that he is falling asleep and begins to nod and he is afraid that a strong, heavy sleep may overcome him, the best advice for him is for him to request his friend to wake him from time to time or that he should go among people where a light shines brightly….the friend should know something of the great loss sleep brings and how necessary it is to awaken the sleeper…
— from R. Aaron Roth‘s “Agitation of the Soul” [1934] IN The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies: A unique and inspiring collection of accounts by people who have encountered God from Biblical times to the present, NY: Schocken, 1997. Louis Jacobs, translation/commentary

Passover seems to me one of the times when Jews are called upon to reflect on past awakenings and to commit to awakening themselves and others.
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for the family of Trayvon Martin, all mourners, and toward justice for all
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“People of the book”? — “People of the table,” too.

With the repeated destruction of local and central sanctuaries, the power of the sacrificial system necessarily diminished. The decline of sacrifice did not end Jewish concern with food, but channeled it in a different direction. Meat-eating became separated for sacrifice, and non-sacrificial forms of worship flourished.

Rabbinic Judaism, the new form of Judaism established after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, elevated non-priestly and non-sacrificial values and institutions to central importance. The primary avenues to God became Torah study, prayer, deeds of lovingkindness, and fulfillment of the countless ritual observances established by the Rabbis. These activities had not been part of the hereditary priestly system and therefore were not prohibited for women or non-priestly men. This change gave a greater religious role to those who had stood on the periphery of the religious order.

The Rabbis transformed the sacrificial rites of the Temple into domestic table rituals….Passover sacrifices became a family feast of highly symbolic foods….The Rabbis composed dozens of berakhot (blessings) to be said over food and after eating. The holiness that was previously contained within the sacred precinct of the Temple extended into homes and community. Sanctified food, which once referred to the food designated for sacrifice, now meant the food prepared for every Jewish family’s use….

Popular tradition teaches that Jews have been “the people of the book,” prizing Torah study above all. This is only partly true. Rabbinic Judaism made us “the people of the table” as well. The table was at the center of every Jewish dwelling. Laden with food, with books stacked up in the empty spaces, it substituted for the altar.
— Jody Elizabeth Myers, from “The Altared Table: Women’s Piety and Food in Judaism,” IN Lifecycles Volume II*

* Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information.

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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.
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Four verbs in Exodus/Shemot 6:6-7 form the basis for the Rabbinic requirement of four cups at the Passover seder:
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A kosher and joyful Passover. News and views from the Jewish Women’s Prayer conference coming.