Tifereth [beauty or compassion] is said to be the balance between gevurah [strength or judgement] and chesed [loving-kindness]. But today (Day #16 in the 49-day ritual counting of the Omer, between Passover and Shavuot) is gevurah in tifereth. A day for exploring where balance may need tipping.
This is an extended version of a post on Sefirat H’Omer: Hunkering Down, Harvesting Lessons. Thanks to Rabbi Moshe Givental for launching the group, to Rabbi Hannah Spiro for getting me involved, and to all who are “hunkering down” and “harvesting.”
NOTE: Here’s a link to the text chapter referenced here and the related podcast.
For years now, I’ve been struggling with the Passover/Exodus story in ways discussed many times so far on this blog and previously through “There We Sat Down,” a project on another of my blogs (I have several, probably too many) on the themes of Exile:
Exodus is — as Captain Obvious might report — about people who Exit. It takes a lot of mental gymnastics (for me, at least) to get from there to “how do we stick together and make a better place for all of us?” or, as more and more Jews are now asking: “How do we get ALL of us out of that Narrow Place, instead of just escaping ourselves?”
Much of my work focuses on racial and cross-community justice, within and beyond the Jewish world. On the one hand, I think I’ve been doing some version of this for most of my conscious life. On the other hand, my focus has shifted substantially in recent years. Some years ago, to take one example, I’d cringe at derisive or violent comments about po-po or wypipo and regularly feel, if not act on, an urge to explain that I had no access to “come get” whichever White person was wreaking havoc in public that week; today, my reaction is usually a sad “yup.”
Over more recent years, my focus has been on racial divides exemplified by the Anacostia River here in my hometown of DC. Thus, Rereading Exodus is subtitled: “a 49-stage journey from the underbelly of the nation’s capital,” employing a phrase my friend and colleague, Kymone Freeman, uses to describe the location of We Act Radio, in Historic Anacostia (that’s east of the river).** I’d been working on this version of this work for several months, before Rona/Covid-19 hit.
Many weeks ago, as I prepared materials for the Rereading Exodus journey, I wrote for the 16th stage about Pharaoh telling the people of Mitzrayim to “cast (off)” [tashlikhuhu]” the baby boys. I asked then: “Can we imagine any people behaving as Pharaoh directs toward Yisrael-ite babies?
I was struck at the time by Adele Berlin’s commentary on this verse (Torah: A Women’s Commentary, URJ, 2008). She notes that the verb here is the same one used when Hagar [v’tashleikh] Ishmael under the bush (Gen 21:15); it’s more likely, Berlin argues, that Hagar left, or abandoned, Ishmael than that she “tossed” him. The commentary cites others examples from Tanakh of the verb used in this way. And she makes a comparison with ancient Greek practice of leaving baby girls on hillsides to die out of sight of the parents, saying that here, on the water, as on the hillsides:
“The predictable — but not immediate — result would be the baby boy’s death.”
I included in this chapter of Rereading Exodus included just a few relevant statistics:
- According to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Black women are more likely to
- Be uninsured before becoming pregnant.
- Be exposed to environmental risks.
- Receive subpar medical care based on their location.
- Experience racial bias from health care providers.
- Nationally, the mortality rate for pregnant Black women is more than twice that for white women. .
- In DC, the infant mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black mothers is more than four times higher than it is for non-Hispanic white mothers, with much of that disparity running along our racial/river divide.
Meanwhile, there is no full-service hospital in any predominantly Black neighborhood of DC, and the only existing hospital east of the Anacostia is slated for complete closure and has already closed its obstetrics department. To clarify: There is currently no facility to assist in delivery of babies east of the Anacostia River in the nation’s capital.
Back then I concluded: “Can we imagine any people behaving as Pharaoh directs toward Yisrael-ite babies? Can we imagine people tolerating predictable results, like those outlined so briefly here?”
Then the pandemic hit.
As predicted: Black people are dying in far greater proportion than others in our town. Other effects, like unemployment and schooling disrupted for lack of computers and internet, are also disproportionately striking east of the river and in other Black neighborhoods. And DC is not unique in this racial divide.
Back when, I fretted that what I wrote was too harsh for readers to process. Today, I am not sure there are words harsh enough for what this pandemic has revealed about our country’s lethal racial divides.
Perhaps this is gevurah pushing its way into tifereth, bringing harsh judgment into our sense of beauty and harmony.
Maybe gevurah has come into into tifereth to demand: Does the balance some of us enjoy come at the expense of others? If this pandemic has shown us what is out of whack, can we foster a more inclusive balance?
I was feature reporter for We Act Radio’s Education Town Hall for years and now host the station’s “Community Under Covid” program. The book and podcast, Rereading Exodus Toward Joint Liberation, is partly inspired by DC’s Cross River Dialogue, which often gathered (pre-pandemic) in We Act Radio’s space and grew out of efforts at the station — on air and in person — to bring together Jewish and Black communities .