Re-reading Exodus for 2023 and the Passover season ahead begins with some thoughts about community, what happens if we separate ourselves from our community or communities — or from our government — and what are our obligations to the infrastructure around us. Source Sheet discussed in this episode. Full transcript of podcast below.
Isn’t It Time? Episode 1: Self, Possessions, Community
Re-reading Exodus for 2023 and the Passover season ahead begins with some thoughts about community, what happens if we separate ourselves from our community or communities — or from our government — and what are our obligations to the infrastructure around us.
Commentaries referenced are linked from Rereading4Liberation.com and available in a Sefaria Sheet. We begin with a thought from the middle of the first millenium CE:
A person helps destroy the world by saying: “What concern are the problems of the community to me? What does their judgment mean to me? Why should I listen to them? I will do well (without them)”— Tanchuma, Mishpatim 2 (See source sheet for Hebrew and complete citation)
This passage, from Tanchuma Mishpatim, comes to us as a kind of sermon on Exodus 21:1 –“These are the rules that you shall set before them.”
It is a powerful warning and worth considering on its own. But it also raises many questions.
To begin: What is meant by “community” here?
The Hebrew word “tzibur” can mean a specific group, like an assembly or a congregation. Post-biblical Hebrew often refers, for example to a “shaliach tzibur,” the prayer-leader or, more literally, “messenger of the community.” Tzibur can also mean a wider public.
“Community” in contemporary American English is used to refer to any number of groups — a neighborhood, a “school community,” the whole city as a community — without specifying who is in or out of any such group. Expressions like “Jewish community,” “Asian community,” or “business community” are often used in place of “demographic category” rather than in reference to individuals in communal relationship to one another.
In addition, journalists and politicians often reference “community concerns” without much transparency around who, exactly, is concerned and why.
- “Neighbors are worried about public safety.”
- “There are community questions about the person appointed to lead this project for the city.”
- “The community supports a change in this law… or this budget line… or wants a new jail… or more police… or less police.”
And, to be transparent about one of my own biggest worries these days: The District of Columbia government regularly gives away what it calls “surplus property” or grants 99-year leases at $1/year, claiming these transfers address community concerns, despite evidence provided by our own Council Office of Racial Equity describing specific ways in which such transfers will fail to promote affordable housing and other metrics already in place for our town.
I personally believe that DC — and many other jurisdictions — are helping to destroy the culture and the safety and many existing community structures by effectively saying, “What concern are the problems of the community to me?” in economic development decisions….In other worlds, destroying worlds.
What does it mean — to you, in your own life and work today, and more generally in your experience — to be concerned with the “problems of the community”?
Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia suggests considering some questions about urgency and needed change as a way of exploring the “community” as a concept and a reality in your life:
…name one change that you believe necessary but many around you exhibit no urgency to address. What factors fuel your sense of urgency? What factors seem to influence others’ comfort with the current situation? Might that change with a different perspective?
…name one change that folks around you are demanding but you are not drawn to address. What factors fuel their urgency? What factors influence your comfort with the current situation? Might that change with a different perspective?
Involvement with the Government
Another question raised by Tanchuma’s warning is involvement with the government.
The commentary begins with a line from Proverbs comparing the stability provided by a sovereign ruler with the instability of folks separating from the community. An alternative translation speaks of “a person of learning [who] participates in public affairs and serves as judge or arbiter,” instead of referencing a sovereign. Either way, though, the passage suggests questions about the relationship of the community to the government.
We are warned, in Pirkei Avot 2:3, for example:
Be careful about the government, as they approach a person only when they need them. They seem like good friends in good times, but they don’t stay for a person in time of their trouble.— Pirkei Avot, 2:3 (See source sheet for Hebrew and complete citation)
As is usual in Jewish discourse, we are offered a continuum in place of a simple rule:
From participate in the government with caution and only as necessary to become a leader yourself, while making sure to stay connected to the community.
When it comes to community needs, then, this one short passage is asking us to consider not only the changes that we, and those around us, believe are urgent but the ways in which we’ll engage in seeking those changes
- through legislation and other government actions?
- through community organizing to steer government action?
- through mutual aid and other community organizing operating outside of government action?
With those questions in mind, this first episode of Isn’t It Time? turns to a passage from the 19th Century teacher, R’ Mordechai Yosef Lainer, known as Mei Hashiloach, adding another layer to our explorations.
Commenting on the first line of this week’s Torah portion, Terumah — and focusing on that word, “Terumah,” featured in the Tanchuma warning above — Mei Hashiloach writes:
…once Chapter Mishpatim was given, we realized that God’s will actually requires holiness and worship to fill every Jewish heart, until it suffuses all our possessions, making them incapable of causing harm or going against the law.— Mei Hashiloach: An annotated Translation by J. Hershy Worch; see source sheet for Hebrew and complete citation
And so, to turn this concept back on what we’ve already considered:
- What actions do we, and the state in which we live, take to procure and protect possessions?
- Do those actions reflect concerns of our community, however defined?
- What kind of shuffling of resources is needed to promoting the concerns of some communities in which we live?
All these questions are raised by the Book of Exodus and have been considered over the centuries by Jewish teachers and communities all over the world. They belong in our Passover preparations, too.
It’s Adar! Time to increase our joy by joining in reflection and action that builds for a better future.
I am still trying to figure out how best to create channels for conversation, across local communities and beyond. Subscribe and share comments at Rereading4Liberation.com. This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?” Peace.
Please share comments here, if comfortable using this public platform. Send comments to me directly at ethreporter (at) gmail.com. I am exploring a “members-only” section of this website for more direct conversation opportunities. Virtual or in-person learning opportunities, for sharing within or across communities, are also a possibility. Other suggestions are welcome.