When Pharaoh tells the people of Mitzrayim to “cast (off) [tashlikhuhu]” the baby boys (Exodus 1:22), do we ask, horrified: How could any people behave as Pharaoh directs?! Or do we acknowledge that we are those people?
Our actions, inaction, and spending result in predictable — if not immediate — suffering and death of so many. We behave as Pharaoh directs. All the time.
Below is some relevant background. Also attached as a PDF, “Eicha for My City and Maybe for Yours: Shevat 5782 Edition,” for printing and sharing. And immediately below is a short history of this commentary.
This commentary: Back Before, Then, and Now
A few years back, in the Before Time, I prepared materials for the Rereading Exodus journey, focusing on 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 other 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 Rereading Exodus just a few relevant statistics, current in 2019 (and sadly not much changed):
- 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 Before, 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 died in far greater proportion than others in our town. To date (1/3/22), 931 of the 1207 lives lost to Covid in DC were Black people — 77%, while only 45% of the city is now Black; another 126 were Hispanic/Latinx. Other effects, like unemployment and schooling disrupted for lack of computers and internet, also disproportionately struck east of the river and in other Black neighborhoods. And DC is not unique in this racial divide.
Back Before, I fretted that what I wrote was too harsh for readers to process. In early 2020, I decided: “I am not sure there are words harsh enough for what this pandemic has revealed about our country’s lethal racial divides.”
UPDATE 1/4: Ten more Black lives lost — 941 of 1218 lives lost to COVID in DC were Black people. To be extra clear: DC posted statistics from over the holiday weekend, and ten of the eleven people who died were Black community members, while one was “other.”. (See https://coronavirus.dc.gov/)
Today, I invite others of like mind to join me in grieving….
Eventually, I hope we will organize to begin ending these long predictable results. Today, perhaps we can just weep.
The attached PDF includes a related few prayers and links to more.
Some reasons I grieve
…and maybe you should join me….
Sixty-nine people died living on DC streets this year; of those, 21 had housing vouchers but still no home. The dead include a colleague’s brother, while others I know struggle for basic housing and food and health needs.
In our name, DC cleared encampments, destroying vulnerable people’s few possessions, in order to “beautify” or permit construction. Cleared areas now house concrete barriers.
Officials responded to complaints on behalf of incarcerated J6 participants, most of whom are white, declaring conditions in DC Jail unacceptable; local people, on behalf of mostly Black inmates, have complained about conditions for years. Current DC inmates remain imperiled. Many DC prisoners are moved to facilities far from from family, friends, and legal support. Violence of all kinds is widespread within jails. My neighbor was killed in a BOP facility far from family in December.
Our city experienced 233 homicides or police killings this year, 193 were gun deaths. Ten children were killed. These and other violent crimes leave trauma upon trauma in their wake. I am regularly one degree of separation from these losses.
Police in DC killed eight people this year, all Black men with one exception: one white person was shot inside the Capitol while attempting to gain access to the House chamber as part of the J6 insurrection. Every loss in my name breaks my heart, and one of the dead was an acquaintance’s nephew.
MPD terrorizes Black communities, detaining even children, and quite successfully spreads evil tales about the people most at risk. People I love are at risk and regularly harmed.
ICE continues to book over 8000 individuals each month. More than 10,000 people contracted Covid in detention. Thousands were deported, contributing to global spread. My personal circle does not include those most affected, but still I grieve.
Median income disparity in families with children is EIGHT TIMES greater in Ward 3, far west of the Anacostia River, than in Wards 7 and 8 to east, where childhood poverty is 42-45%. East of the river loses three to EIGHT TIMES more infants and mothers than other parts of town. Educational outcomes continue to follow wealth. The toll is heavy.
Image Description: Ward map of DC, showing 8 wards, with Wards 7 and 8 are easternmost and Ward 3 is farthest west. Superimposed are statistics: Median income for families with children is over $250K in Ward 3, $36K in Ward 7, and less than $32K in Ward 8. Child poverty in Ward 7 is 42% and in Ward 8 is 45%.