This episode’s topic is “Coming Forth” — what would it mean for us, collectively, to “come forth from Mitzrayim,” the Narrow Place of oppression? Trigger warning: political attacks on human rights, particular those of transgender youth and adults.
Isn’t It Time? Episode 8
The previous episode of Isn’t It Time? considered how easy it is to fall into thinking we’ve already come far enough in the journey toward Liberation. The current topic is “Coming Forth” — what would it mean for us, collectively, to “come forth from Mitzrayim,” the Narrow Place of oppression? It comes, sorry to say, with a trigger warning for political attacks on human rights, particular those of transgender individuals.
Sources cited, and some for background, are available on a Sefaria Sheet.
To consider “Coming Forth,” we begin with two passages from the New American Haggadah — the one published in 2012 by Little Brown, with commentary from perspectives identified as “Library,” “House of Study,” “Nation,” and “Playground.”
First, from early in the Passover seder:
“And I will lift you out from under the millstone that is [Mitzrayim]”— Ex 6:6, in New American Haggadah. Little, Brown & Co, 2012
At this point, I regret to interrupt with a clarification about what is meant by “millstone” here.
When the New American Haggadah included a millstone in their 2012 translation, when Aurora Levins Morales used the imagery in 2017, and when I focused on this imagery in writing as recent as last year, we had not yet seen a different kind of millstone imagery used from Christian Nationalists in the titles of bills introduced into state legislatures throughout the United States. These “Millstone Acts” are dangerous pieces of legislation that threaten human rights of all, and specifically attack transgender youth and adults. (See, e.g., Religion Dispatches.)
So, let’s be clear that millstone imagery in Hebrew scriptures is entirely unrelated, in terms of context and linguistics, to Gospel “millstone” imagery found, for example, in Matthew 18:6: “…better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
In the Hebrew bible, and in Talmud and later commentary, a millstone is a functional, grain-producing image. It appears both literally and metaphorically to describe weight and grinding. A millstone is mentioned in Deuteronomy (24:6) as a tool so necessary to ordinary livelihood that it cannot be taken as surety for a financial debt. In Judges (9:53) and 2 Samuel (11:21), an incident is related — the same one — in which a woman uses an upper millstone as a weapon during a battle, stopping an intruder by dropping it on his head.
Based on concordance studies, “millstone” NEVER appears in Hebrew scriptures as an instrument of torture or capital punishment.
I had not planned to include this clarification. I am honestly horrified to have to utter these words at all. I will be seeking comment from folks who write about Christian theology and are just as horrified.
Moreover, I had planned to focus these Isn’t It Time? remarks on gentrification and displacement as we try to envision new lessons from the Exodus story for where many of us live right now.
But perhaps it seems important to consider the terrible grinding weight that so many of us are under in the US and beyond, due to factors only tangentially related to gentrification. It is important to acknowledge the resultant grief and fear and effort involved in just staying alive, let alone organizing for a better future.
…I offer a moment for breathing and re-orienting ourselves to the imagery intended here…
We are talking here about large stones, single stones or pairs, used to grind grain into flour. As they work, their surfaces are worn down. The millstones are weighty. Getting out from underneath one would be a challenge, maybe something that couldn’t be accomplished at all without help from outside.
So, back to those words from early in the Passover seder: “And I will lift you out from under the millstone that is [Mitzrayim].” That was the first quotation from New American Haggadah. Here is the second, commentary from “Playground” on the “In Every Generation” section:
So many of the details of the story seem somewhat old-fashioned, such as the smearing of lamb’s blood over the doorway of one’s home, which has been largely replaced by signs warning away solicitors. But in fact, the story of liberation is one that is still going on, as people all over the world are still in bondage, and we wait and wait,
as the Jews in [Mitzrayim] waited and waited, for the day when freedom will be spread all over the world like frosting on a well-made cake, rather than dabbed on here and there
as if the baker were selfishly eating most of the frosting directly from the bowl. The story of Passover is a journey, and like most journeys, it is taking much longer than it ought to take,
no matter how many times we stop and ask for directions. We must look upon ourselves as though we, too, were among those fleeing a life of bondage in [Mitzrayim] and wandering the desert for years and years, which is why we are often so tired in the evenings
and cannot always explain how we got to be exactly where we are.
— Lemony Snicket (“Playground”) commentary, New American Haggadah, p. 79
Lemony Snicket’s remarks here are of a piece with the unusual translation of Exodus 6:6, using “millstone” for the Hebrew “sivlot,” a plural form that is more usually translated as “burdens” or “yoke” or “oppressive work.”
There’s more about this interesting word in the booklet Isn’t It Time? and in the full text, Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia — and about the verses in which it appears, which are crucial ones at the start of the Exodus story.
For now, let’s note that this translation choice — which is based on some very old commentary about the grinding nature of oppression in the Exodus story — applies to racism and other forms of on-going oppression in the U.S. and around the world. The imagery also suggests regular and fundamental alteration affecting oppressor and oppressed just as both stone and grain are altered when grain is transformed into flour
Aurora Levins Morales uses that same “millstone” imagery in the 2017 JFREJ publication, Understanding Antisemitism describing how racism and antisemitism operate differently:
Racism is like a millstone, a crushing weight that relentlessly presses down on people intended to be a permanent under-class. Its purpose is to press profit from us, right to the edge of extermination and beyond. The oppression of Jews is a conjuring trick, a pressure valve, a shunt that redirects the rage of working people away from the 1%, a hidden mechanism, a set up that works through misdirection, that uses privilege to hide the gears.
— Understanding Antisemitism: An Offering to Our Movement, a resource from Jews for Racial & Economic Justice, 2017 (on their website)
Returning to Exodus 6:6 — visit Sefaria Sheet for related sources and citations — and its appearance early in the Passover Seder. At that point, we are still under the weight of old circumstances and assumptions and have not moved through the Exodus experiences meant to help us learn something.
(How) can the Exodus story/Passover observance help?
What experiences do we need to learn how to get ourselves and others out from under?
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This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?”