This episode considers starting points and explaining motivations in the Exodus story and community engagement.
Isn’t It Time? Episode 5
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Now these are the names of the sons of Yisrael, who came into Mitzrayim with Jacob; every man came with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah; Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin; Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. Altogether there were seventy persons of Jacob’s issue; and Joseph was in Mitzrayim already.— Exodus 1:1-5
These lines assume a lot: Who is Yisrael? Where were his sons before? Why did they move? Who is Jacob? …Supposing we already know that Jacob and Yisrael are two names for the same person:
Why is the text using both names?
We might feel like we tuned in late or are getting the wrong reel of a movie — not that most devices are tuned these days or movies distributed in reels…We might wish for a hint, like the one opening The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter” (Mark Twain, 1885)….and the “Location and Identity” Episode briefly discussed ways in which the storytelling here deliberately links back to the Book of Genesis.
So we can orient ourselves for the opening lines of Exodus by looking back at Genesis. Or we can just plow ahead in Exodus, without background on who-all is being introduced here.
Where to begin reading telling or studying a story is one important decision, crucial to how we understand it.
The Isn’t It Time? booklet and Thinkific class materials share two real world examples — one about how the story of a killing by DC police was reported, and one about how the story of a hostage situation at a Texas synagogue was reported — These examples are important to consider, and I urge listeners/readers to check them out. In addition, it’s useful to reflect — as we’ve begun to some extent in previous episodes — on whose story is being told, who is an actor and who acted upon, and whose perspectives are offered — in the text itself, which names only men, and in commentary over the centuries and in recent times.
As we look ahead to Passover or the Exodus story itself, we can pause to consider where we start the saga and how the starting point affects the tale. Who is included in the telling? Who missing? How does that affect our understanding? Might a different starting point yield an entirely different experience?
The last episode, “Who Are We Not?”, included a piece from the book Capital Dilemma about
how gentrification is reported in the media and public discourse.
Authors Modan and Wells note at one point:
The focus on cultural markers of gentrification serves either to portray long-term Black residents in a deeply nostalgic light, or to characterize new wealthy and/or White residents as alien entities with incomprehensible ways.
— “Representations of Change: Gentrification in the Media” by Katie Wells and Gabriella Modan IN Capital Dilemma. available for download.
The remark about “incomprehensible ways” points to much of what happens in public discourse, not only around gentrification, but about so many attempts of two or more groups to share space. Misunderstanding or deliberately mischaracterizing how a group of people occupy public space leads to many forms of surveillance and over-policing for some neighbors as well as failures in design for residential, commercial and public space, with results ranging from merely annoying to potentially fatal. In addition, failure to communicate well across group assumptions and expectations can make attempts at community engagement difficult at best. Closely related to the challenge of where to start in telling a story, is that of conveying intentions behind actions.
In a commentary on one of the last verses of Genesis — Chapter 50, verse 20 — the 19th Century Polish teacher, known as Mei Hashiloach, explains this verse as a misunderstanding about motives.
In Genesis 50:20, Joseph tells his brothers: “You planned ill against me, but God planned it for good ….” Mei Hashiloach relates this to a story that does not appear in the text: Joseph chose to separate himself for meals, later in the brothers’ lives, rather than sort out who should sit at the head of the table: Joseph, due to his standing in the government, or Judah, based on their father’s deathbed blessing that all the brothers would bow to Judah. The brothers believed Joseph separating himself for meals was an act of hatred and resentment.
They should have given him benefit of the doubt, Mei Hashiloach says, and that division between the brothers is what led eventually to the conditions we find in early Exodus. He continues: “Joseph’s behavior, in creating the gap for misunderstanding and misinterpretation to enter, is also considered a sin.” ( Full citation and Hebrew at Sefaria Sheet)
According to this teaching, it is wrong to falsely impute negative motives to others, AND it is wrong to allow for such misunderstanding to grow by not explaining ourselves. There is a lesson here for community engagement today as well as for understanding Exodus.
Mei Hashiloach‘s reading is unusual. Many commentators relate Genesis 50:20 (“You planned ill against me, but God planned it for good ….” ) instead to an incident earlier in the text — in Genesis 37 — of the brothers planning ill: They physically attack Joseph, sell him to passing traders, and then report that he’s been killed.
But this more obvious link is also the source of commentary that focuses on misunderstanding.
Sforno, a 16th Century Italian teacher, says that the brothers were mistaken in thinking Joseph a threat. “You had mistakenly considered me as a rodef [a pursuer], someone threatening your very lives,” Sforno imagines Joseph telling the brothers. “Had you not erred, your actions would have been perfectly justified.”
There is lots more to say about the Jewish concept of rodef, or pursuer, and its relationship to narrative around threat. For now, though, let’s return the focus to where a story starts.
Both Sforno’s and Mei Hashiloach’s readings show dangers of misunderstanding and suggest that clearer communication around motives, and more honest discussion of perceived threats, could prevent serious disasters. This, too, is part of where we start any story.
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It’s Adar! Time to increase our joy by joining in reflection and action that builds for a better future. This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?” Peace