Isn’t It Time?

Just before the people cross the Sea of Reeds, in the Book of Exodus, God/YHVH tells Moses:

Now Pharaoh will say of the Children of Israel:
They are confused [נְבֻכִים, nevukhim] in the land!
The wilderness has closed [סָגַר ,sagar] them in!
— Exodus 14:3, Fox translation (Schocken, 1995)

Is it only Pharaoh who believes, or says, this? Are we stuck due to our own inability to see what confuses us or encloses us?

Looking more closely at what has us confused/enclosed is a first step toward finding a way out. Isn’t it time?!

Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia explores inter-group dialogue, its role in understanding and addressing oppression and in envisioning new ways to get ourselves – all of us– out from under the millstone of racism and inequality and militarism. It explores what life in DC teaches about the Exodus story and vice versa.

Isn’t It Time? shares excerpts from Rereading Exodus plus new thoughts and questions –

  • to help in preparing for Passover,
  • to explore at the seder or during the Passover week,
  • for the omer journey, from Passover to Shavuot, &/or
  • to help in interrogating and reimagining the Exodus story in any season

Isn’t It Time? can be explored on its own or as supplement to Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia. Choice of two PDF formats below.

The book itself is available as follows

Isn’t It Time? (for Rereading Exodus)

Two PDF versions: (1) B/W booklet: 16 pages to print back-to-back on 8 sheets, folding into 8.5″ X 5″ booklet, and (2) straightforward 16-page (8.5 X 11) PDF.

1) print and fold to 32-page B/W booklet
2) straightforward 16-page PDF

Feature image description: Cover of “Isn’t It Time?” shows stylized map of DC, highlighting rivers, with text: Isn’t It Time? Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia: Engaging the age-old Exodus story, and our own, to inspire change where we are right now.

Stay in touch for possible communal learning opportunities —

Relationships: Isn’t It Time 10

This episode of Isn’t It Time looks at the topic of relationships within the early Exodus narrative and in undoing oppression..

Isn’t It Time, Episode 10

Podcast Transcript

The previous episode explored teachings from a rabbi who lived through the Third Reich in Germany. Rabbi Jacob Benno argued that, in the Exodus story, “only a systematically encouraged hate propaganda was able to change” personal friendships between ordinary Yisraelites and Miztrayimites. In strong contrast, Rabbi Daniel J. Moskovitz, a contemporary rabbi, wrote a few years ago about “hatred always there just below the surface, waiting for the opportunity to arise.”

Rabbi Moskovitz’s remarks are focused on lines early in Exodus:

Now there arose a new king over Mitzrayim, who did not know Joseph. And he said unto his people: ‘Behold, the people of the children of Yisrael are too many and too mighty for us…’
— Exodus 1:8-9

This commentary asks:

Does the text mean to suggest that it was the memory of Joseph that had kept the [Yisrael-ites] safe from oppression in [Mitzrayim]? In other words, was the hatred always there just below the surface, waiting for the opportunity to arise?
–“Pharaoh Didn’t Know Joseph,”
commentary provided by Union for Reform Judaism, at MyJewishLearning

This set of questions contrasts deeply with Rabbi Benno Jacob’s view: Here, in place of an active force promoting hate, an active force is required to keep it at bay — and it seems this force could be centered on an individual. In Genesis, Joseph’s relationship to Mitzrayim-ite life looms much larger than that of his brothers, and he is presented as a bridge between his extended family and the surrounding culture.

But, is it possible that Joseph was the only link between the two groups? Or that his role was so crucial that all collapsed without him?

Attributing all that power to one person makes Joseph seem reminiscent of an organized crime leader or “the Boss” of a political patronage machine. Is R’ Moskovitz suggesting that Joseph, or his memory, kept a lid on intergroup animosity through doling out of protection, jobs, and essential resources?

This is not inconsistent with Joseph’s story in Genesis. And it’s not inconsistent with contemporary PR strategies, relying on one big name with known ties to a particular group for entrée to a whole community or to signal “understanding” after some kind of harm has occurred….Visiting Sylvia’s restaurant in Harlem with Rev. Al Sharpton, or joining a high-profile Passover Seder come to mind….

The effect of single impressions on public opinion cannot be dismissed. Beyond optics, though, what is the power of a single relationship in inter-group understanding?

One relationship can provide some education, illuminating past harm and helping to avoid further hateful incidents…although that’s asking a lot of an individual who has experienced harm….One relationship can serve some conflict-calming functions, helping to keep misunderstanding and anger from snowballing.

But, can a single relationship — or even a bunch of them — reduce the kind of endemic hatred that R’ Moskovitz suggests is “always there just below the surface”? And what, if any, impact can individual relationships have on systemic racism and oppression?


Earlier this week, I participated in a #HandsOffDC action organized by Harriets Wildest Dreams, DC for Democracy, and a coalition of more than 40 organizations seeking to protect the little self-governance DC residents currently have.

We took turns going into the office of Representative Andrew Clyde of Georgia, who is moving to overturn some basic DC police and criminal code reforms as part of a racist attempt to frame our city as ungovernable and soft on crime.

Frankie Seabron, a third-generation Washingtonian, spoke as part of the HandsOffDC action. Here are her remarks as quoted by the Washington Post:

“Your offices are here, but y’all don’t know nothing about what really happens in D.C. Y’all don’t know nothing about the city. Y’all don’t know nothing about our communities, y’all don’t know about our struggles and what we go through…This is another thing that y’all don’t need to have your hands in. So tell Clyde to keep his hands off my city.”
“At Georgia lawmaker’s office, statehood advocates say ‘hands off DC’”
by Ellie Silverman, March 21, 2023

[Audio is shared from Frankie Seabron herself speaking; full clip below]

The action on March 21 was organized as an opportunity for Rep Clyde to hear directly from folks who actually live in the city and have first-hand experiences with our laws, given that he claims to be so interested in safety within our town. In a sense, it’s an attempt to form a kind of relationship with this Congressman who was elected for the first time in 2020 and does not live full time in DC.

If he or his staff members were actually paying any attention, what kind of impact might this have?

More generally, and returning to our commentary on Joseph and the Book of Exodus, how do individual relationships relate to oppression?

Leaving aside for the moment the complex relationship of hate to oppression —

  • Can a single relationship — or even a bunch of them — influence the kind of endemic hate suggested here?
  • Can a single relationship — between particular political or community leaders, for example — help to control hate-based behaviors?
  • What, if any, impact can individual relationships have on systemic oppression?
  • Meanwhile, what it is the cost of maintaining those relationships?

Subscribe here or through podcasting apps and consider signing up for the Isn’t It Time discussion platform at Thinkific.

This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?” and “Hands Off DC.” Peace


Washington Post article — available through DC Public Library and many local libraries in case paywall prevents access.

Twitter Clip of Frankie Seabron at Rep. Clyde’s office

Parallel story unfolding in Chicago and elsewhere. See, e.g., Black Wall Street Times, “Chicago mayoral hopeful: “woke” teaching leads to criminal behavior” by Nate Morris

SUPPORT Harriets Wildest Dreams, DC Justice Lab and the whole Hands-off-dc.com coalition

Interactions: Isn’t It Time 9

A few more words on ” Coming Forth” from the Narrow Place, followed by this episode’s main topic: Interactions.

Isn’t it Time? Episode 9

Podcast Transcript

A few more words on ” Coming Forth” from the Narrow Place before moving on to this episode’s main topic: Interactions.

Sources referenced can be found at Sefaria.org.

Segregation and Coming Forth

What would it mean for us, collectively, to “come forth from Mitzrayim“?

The 20th Century Italian teacher, Umberto Cassuto (1883–1951) finds a clue in the way God’s name is introduced in The Book of Exodus.

Early in Exodus, Moses receives his mission at the Burning Bush and then meets up with his brother Aaron to approach Pharaoh. The two brothers bring God’s “Let My People Go” demand to Pharaoh for the first time, leading to changes to working conditions that worsen the people’s burden, and resulting in more distrust and anger toward Aaron and Moses. At this point, God speaks to Moses, saying:

“I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty [El Shaddai], not by My name YHVH…”

— Exodus 6:3

This is an odd thing for God to say, given that “YHVH” was already used several times and Moses was already told several times to share the name (Ex 3:6,15,18; 5:1ff). So, what does it mean, this “but (by) my name YHVH I was not known”? What is it that is still unknown?

Cassuto argues that this references a future experience, that the people won’t really know a divine Liberator — won’t know YHVH (the 4-letter name for God, “I Will Be Who I Will Be”) — until collectively experiencing getting out from under the “sivlot,” the burdens, or, as discussed in Episode 8, the “Millstone that is Mitzrayim.”

Similarly, we ourselves cannot know God as Liberator until we’ve collectively experienced that getting out.

It is worth noting in this context, one step that Moses takes en route to leadership Just as soon as he grows up — in the same verse, in fact, Exodus 2:11 (see Sefaria Sheet for “Coming Forth”) — Moses “goes out to his kin” and sees their sivlotam, the weight of the system in which they labored.

Ancient commentary on this verse remarks on this “seeing” here. Rashi, based on Shemot Rabbah, says that Moses “set his eyes and mind to share in their distress.” The 13th Century Spanish rabbi, known as Nachmanides or Ramban, relates this “going out to his kin” to formation and declaration of Moses’ identify as a Hebrew. In both cases, and in many other commentaries, this verse is understood as a moment when Moses forms some kind of connection with the Yisraelite people and their sufferings.

Becoming proximate to his kin is a key element in this process.

There is a great deal of commentary imagining Moses’ relationship to the Hebrews — or lack thereof — before this moment. The text itself tells us nothing except that he was kept with his birth family as an infant — until the point when his existence could no longer be hidden — and then his birth mother served as his nursemaid before she brought him to the palace, where the Daughter of Pharaoh had adopted him as her son. We are left to imagine if/how the palace interacted with Moses’ family or extended kin circles.

Interactions and Segregation

And we know almost nothing about interaction between ordinary Yisraelites and Mitzrayim-ites. It is not even clear where the two groups lived, relative to one another.

One of many viewpoints is offered by R’ Benno Jacob:

The details of our story suggest that [the Yisraelites] were scattered throughout [Mitzrayim], which must have led to many personal friendships; only a systematically encouraged hate propaganda was able to change this.
— B. Jacob, The Second Book of the Bible p.343

This viewpoint may seem unremarkable, if a little preachy… until considering that Benno Jacob (1862-1945) was born in Breslau and lived in Germany during the Third Reich.

Watching synagogues burn and community members shipped off to concentration camps, he continued to indict “a systematically encouraged hate propaganda,” rather than the neighbors. This perspective strongly affirms the humanity of all involved — it also raises questions about segregation, friendship, and hate.

In addition, R’ Jacob argues that Mitzrayim-ites engaged in “clear public protest against the policies of the royal tyrant,” and that Moses was continuing to work for “peace between the two peoples” (The Second Book of the Bible, p. 343-4). The picture he draws is one in which individual Mitzrayim-ites have no more power over the tyrant’s policies than do the Yisraelites.

R’ Jacob suggests that individuals, Mitzrayim-ite or Yisraelite, are relatively powerless in the face of Pharaoh’s policies and “systematically encouraged hate.” What about our lives today —

What power do we have over policy and hate?

Do we experience “systematically encouraged hate”? If so, how has it affected relationships between community groups and individuals?

R’ Jacob argues that existing personal friendships were changed through propaganda: Might a counter-effort have helped them survive?

History is filled with individual friendships surviving, and ameliorating short-term effects of, oppression: What about the long-haul? Does friendship become untenable if systemic conditions are not addressed?

Links to materials exploring the history of segregation in Washington DC are available on the Sefaria source sheet.

It’s still Adar, a month for increasing joy — one way to do that is by joining in reflection and action that overturns evil.

Subscribe here or through podcasting apps and consider signing up for the Isn’t It Time discussion platform at Thinkific.

This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?” Peace

Coming Forth: Isn’t It Time? 8

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

Podcast Transcript

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?

Subscribe at Rereading4Liberation.com or through podcasting apps and consider signing up for the Isn’t It Time discussion platform at Thinkific.

This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?”


Far Enough? Isn’t It Time 7

This episode looks at the prophetic call, for Purim and other holidays, to act in “truth and peace.”

Isn’t It Time? Episode 7

Today is the holiday of Purim in the Jewish calendar. May the holiday’s theme of overturning evil come to fruition across the globe — and a joyous festival to those celebrating.

Today’s source sheet includes verses from the Book of Esther that establish both the fasts and the celebrations of Purim, as well as a few verses from the prophet Zechariah, exploring reasons for fasting or feasting.

Podcast Transcript

Truth and Peace

Toward the end of the Book of Esther, dispatches are sent to declare the holiday of Purim, with words of “peace and truth” –“divrei shalom v’emet,” or, as the Jewish Publication Society translation says: an “ordinance of equity and honesty.”

This expression “divrei shalom v’emet” echoes the Book of Zechariah’s declaration that festivals must be based on love of emet and shalom, honesty and integrity or truth and peace.

Here’s what Zechariah says, attributing this speech to God:

8:16) These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates. And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, (17) because all those are things that I hate. (18)[Remember these are words from God that Zechariah is reporting here.] (19) […Fasts will be instead] occasions for joy and gladness, happy festivals for the House of Judah; but you must love honesty and integrity, v’ha-emet v’ha-shalom ahavu

Scholars date this prophetic discussion of fasts associated with Exile to 518 BCE — based on specific references to historic people and events in Zechariah’s prophesy. The Book of Esther is dated, also based on historic references, to between 50 and 100 years later. So, according to notes in the JPS translation, when The Book of Esther mentions “divrei shalom v’emet,” it is referencing Zechariah’s declarations about ethical conduct and festivals:

  • to speak truth to one another,
  • to render true and perfect justice,
  • to not contrive evil against one another, and
  • to not love perjury.

That, right there, is a tall order. And one that is all too currently applicable.

Far Enough?

Making sure that any religious observance is oriented toward justice is a regular call of Jewish prophets. And one that we and our ancestors have struggled to meet for thousands of years. Returning to this basic call is the main reason for rereading Exodus and for reconsidering how we approach Passover.

If the questions we ask at Passover are not helping us envision the work ahead, we need some new questions.

And if the result of our observance is not greater and more focused commitment to justice, we have some reworking of the holiday and our reading of Exodus to do.

This installment of Isn’t It Time? looks at our tendency to believe we’ve already gone “far enough.”

Decades ago, Michael Walzer concluded Exodus and Revolution with this adage about “what the Exodus first taught”:

…first, that wherever you are, it is probably [Mitzrayim]; second, that there is a better place, a world more attractive, a promised land; and third, that the way to the land is through the wilderness. There is no way to get from here to there except by joining together and marching.
Exodus and Revolution (Basic Books, 1985)

In the years since 1985, this passage has found its way into countless essays, sermons, and Passover readings.

Is this image still working for us, though, in approaching Passover and Exodus?

As noted previously: Envisioning en masse departure of the oppressed — a violent, permanent parting — may not be the most helpful metaphor for many circumstances we face today.

Destruction of the Temple, close to 2000 years ago, resulted in what Rabbi Benay Lappe, of SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva, calls a “crash” of Judaism’s organizing story. R’ Lappe teaches that the rabbis of the Talmud responded to that crash in a way that resulted in the Judaism we know today. SVARA and SVARA-inspired learning seeks to employ Talmudic strategies toward creating new stories that will move Judaism forward in new ways.

Perhaps we are seeing something of a “crash” around Exodus as envisioned in that “joining together and marching” metaphor. What metaphors might work better for us instead?

Some questions to consider:

Are we prepared to head toward something truly different?

Will we let go of what we have in order to get there?

With whom have we joined hands already? Whom have we left behind?

Have we been marching toward a liberation — that never seems to materialize — for so long
that we now wonder if it’s worth the upheaval?

Subscribe here or through podcasting apps and consider signing up for the Isn’t It Time discussion platform at Thinkific.

It’s Purim! Time to increase our joy by joining in reflection and action that overturns evil.

This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?”

Peace…and Truth

Ending Points: Isn’t It Time 6

So far, Rereading Exodus for 2023 has considered social location, relating to the various characters and places in the Exodus story, and the importance of starting points. This episode looks at Ending Points.

Isn’t It Time? Episode 6

The only extra source for this episode is Zora Neale Hurston’s 1939 Moses, Man of the Mountain. This podcast includes brief quotations from the book and a strong recommendation to check out this novel if you have not already done so.

Literature and real life tend toward three basic endpoints:

  • Sometimes the whole point is to get out;
  • sometimes the journey has a pre-determined destination;
  • and sometimes the aim is the journey itself.

A very cursory look at Exodus often relates escape from Mitzrayim as dramatic, decisive and final: Oppression behind us; freedom ahead; halleluyah!

But the story is longer and messier than we sometimes remember, and not nearly as final. Even after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, there are 27 more chapters of Exodus and then the next three books of the Bible, all in the wilderness. The Torah closes, forty years on, an entire generation having perished on the journey and a river still to cross.

  • as a story about getting out of the Narrow Place;
  • as a journey to a “better place,” a new home toward which Moses has been told to lead the people and/or “back home,” from the perspective of Genesis;
  • as a journey, centered in Jewish holiday and Torah reading cycles that keeps us wandering in a wilderness which is part home, part exile.

In Moses, Man of the Mountain, Zora Neale Hurston describes Moses reflecting, at the end of his life and work, as the People stand at the Jordan river:

[Yisrael] was at the Jordan inside as well as out. Perhaps he had done as much as was possible for one man to do for another. He had put the future in their hands to do with it according to their hearts and their talents….
He had given [Yisrael] back the notes to songs. The words would be according to their own dreams, but they would sing. They had songs and singers….
— Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, p.283
NY: Harper, 1991 (originally published 1939)

The leader is aware, in Hurston’s telling as in many commentaries, of the ongoing trauma of Mitzrayim, the many who never made it out, the cost of the trek and the price still to be paid.

Hurston’s 1939 readers were expected to see parallels between the ancient drama and both Black experience in the U.S. and the rise of Nazism worldwide. The “better place” had yet to materialize, and eighty-plus years after Hurston’s writing, we’re still in the same spot. With fascism again — or still — on the rise, we have much work to do toward understanding race and how it works in our overlapping Jewish and Black contexts.

Hurston’s Moses, standing at the Jordan, considers: “If he had failed in his highest dreams he had succeeded in others. Perhaps he had not failed so miserably as he sometimes felt.” (ibid, p.283)

This moment is built into the Jewish holiday and Torah cycles for us to encounter every year. It might seem a gloomy moment. But it’s also a hopeful one…because we know that each year, we can show up better prepared for the next time around. We can approach perennial challenges with fresh energy and new allies.

Earlier in her telling of the Exodus story, Hurston describes Moses, before the Burning Bush, a young man on the run from Mitzrayim and uncertain about his own heritage and destiny:

All night he traveled and thought. He found his unformed wishes taking shape. He was wishing for a country he had never seen. He was seeing visions of a nation he had never heard of where there would be more equality of opportunity and less difference between top and bottom.
— Hurston, Moses, Man of the Mountain, p.283

We can join THAT Moses in envisioning a future we know that we have not even fully imagined yet. We can look at the Exodus narrative new this time.

Some questions to consider:

What is the journey’s aim?

With a view to “getting out” — What Narrow Place are you attempting to escape this year? What Narrow Place does your community need to leave behind?

Considering a “better place” — Do you have a destination in mind, as you leave the Narrow Place? What do you envision, at the end of the road, for your community?

On this journey — Is there something essential to be learned from the wilderness itself? How might your community benefit from accepting that some things have been left behind, while the destination is still out of sight?

Subscribe at Rereading4Liberation.com or through podcasting apps and consider signing up for the Isn’t It Time discussion platform at Thinkific.

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?”

Starting Points: Isn’t It Time 5

This episode considers starting points and explaining motivations in the Exodus story and community engagement.

Isn’t It Time? Episode 5

Related sources at Sefaria. Visit Thinkific platform discussion opportunities and more links.

Podcast Transcript

Starting Points

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.

Subscribe her or through podcasting apps and consider signing up for the Isn’t It Time discussion platform at Thinkific.

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

Who Are We NOT? Isn’t It Time 4

Re-reading Exodus for 2023 continues with a look at Who We Are NOT in the Exodus and Passover story.

Isn’t It Time? Episode 4

Sources referenced are linked in a Sefaria Sheet.

Publisher’s info for Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington DC, cited also in Episode 2 and likely to come up again. DC Public Library has a few copies, check out other libraries. The piece cited here is “Representations of Change: Gentrification in the Media” by Katie Wells and Gabriella Modan. Full article available for download.

Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary (Stein & Day, 1974) is not easy to find. But used copies do appear from time to time. More quotations are included in Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia.

Podcast Transcript

Biblical Joseph

In his book, Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary, Dick Gregory — who was born in 1932 and died in 2017, his memory for a blessing — discusses the biblical Joseph. Gregory begins his commentary with notes on dreamers and dreaming:

Joseph found out it’s dangerous to be a dreamer. Just like Joseph’s brothers, society today has three ways of dealing with dreamers. Kill the dreamer. Throw the dreamer in jail (the contemporary “cisterns” in our society). Or sell the dreamer into slavery; purchase the dream with foundation grants or government deals, until the dreamer becomes enslaved to controlling financial or governmental interests.
Dick Gregory’s Bible Tales with Commentary. (Stein & Day, 1974), p.70

Gregory goes on to say that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “experienced all the ways society tries to deal with dreamers,” concluding: “Dreamers can be killed. Dreams live on.”

Note that MLK is introduced here without explicit reference to race; this passage portrays the leader as a dreamer who treaded in dangerous political territory. Today, as in 1974, readers of many backgrounds can relate to a system that tries to destroy dreams by attacking dreamers.

Then Gregory shifts to a more racially explicit perspective: “maybe Joseph was a Black cat.” He continues, regarding Joseph’s incarceration and interpretation of dreams for fellow inmates (Gen 40):

The butler in the Joseph story symbolizes America’s treatment of Black folks. The butler used Joseph’s talent as an interpreter of dreams and he promised to tell Pharaoh about Joseph. As soon as the butler got himself comfortably back in Pharaoh’s palace, he forgot about his word to Joseph.
America was built on the sweat, toil, and talent of Black folks. But when the work was done and the talent utilized, America quickly forgot its debt to Blacks. Black folks helped lay down the railroad tracks, but they could only work as porters after the trains started running. Black slaves picked the cotton, but the garment industry belonged to white folks.
— Bible Tales, p.73

Many readers can relate to feelings of being ill-used. But here Gregory specifically references experience of Black people enslaved in the U.S. and their descendants. If this is not our direct experience, we must recognize what we know and what we don’t.

Thoughts and a Question to Consider:

Non-Black Jews might have experiences of oppression and carry generational trauma. We can learn from others. But that does not make us first-hand experts on topics like “America’s treatment of Black folks.”

Non-Jewish folks might have experiences of oppression, carry generational trauma, and can learn from Jews. But non-Jews are not first-hand experts on topics like “alarm bells that anti-Jewish conspiracy raise for me.”

How do we speak and write so as to distinguish shared, or universal, experiences from more particular ones?

NOTE: Given current events, in the State of Israel and the US today, it’s important to note that recognition of alarm bells, oppression and trauma must be separated from public policy…

Gentrification’s Agents

It is important to distinguish shared experiences from more universal ones when talking about the histories and possible futures of our communities. Having some ideas of who we are and who we are not is crucial for understanding our roles in gentrification, in particular.

Two scholars studied linguistic choices in journalism and public discourse around gentrification, and their research appears in the “Representations of Change: Gentrification in the Media” chapter of Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington DC. The authors — Gabriella Modan, associate professor of English at Ohio State, and Katie Wells, now a geographer at Georgetown University — argue that gentrification is often portrayed as “an autonomous force of nature,” akin to a hurricane, to which people can only respond, rather than shape.

Discussion of gentrification, they write, often centers around signifiers instead of actors:

bodies — youth, exercise preferences, food ways

built environment — “eating and drinking establishments, yoga studios…dog parks.”

culture — Chocolate City becoming vanilla swirl

“The focus on cultural markers of gentrification,” they write, “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.” (p.322-3)

In addition, agency is regularly disguised by use of passive voice and other semantic choices:

For example —

  • “the site will bring a grocery and retailers” — as though the place were the actor;
  • “population growth brought residents with more income and education” — as though resultant growth were the actor.

Modan and Wells stress two points that bring us back to the concept of who we are and who we are not.

First: “…personal choices of individuals to move into neighborhoods where they have more economic and/or symbolic capital than current residents do not adequately explain how gentrification happens.”

Second: “political and business players” — as well as cultural actors — have crucial roles in “creating, sustaining, and strengthening gentrification.” (p.321)

The authors believe that different linguistic choices can reframe how we understand the causes and effects of structural inequalities. With this in mind, we might profitably examine our own language, and language we encounter, to clarify our choices as individual economic actors and as political, business, and/or cultural actors….And, while God and Pharaoh are the biggest players in early chapters of Exodus, we would benefit from clarifying the roles of other agents at work in the story.

Subscribe at Rereading4Liberation.com or through podcasting apps and consider signing up for the Isn’t It Time discussion platform at Thinkific.

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?”


Who Are We? Isn’t It Time 3

Re-reading Exodus for 2023 continues with a look at Who Are We? in the Exodus and Passover story.

Isn’t It Time, Episode 3

For this episode of “Isn’t It Time,” the only additional commentary referenced is the Mixed Multitudes Haggadah Supplement created by Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. (JFREJ Haggadah Library)

Each time we return to Exodus and the Passover story is another chance to grasp the many ways in which we have yet to experience Liberation ourselves and are participating in the oppression of others. One way to seek out new perspectives is to consider ourselves as ALL of the characters in the Passover story. “After the Maggid: When We Imagine Ourselves Allies,” written from perspectives of an interracial family, explores some of the many allies and oppressors of Exodus. It is worth considering independently of the seder, to help inform our approach to Passover and to extend our understanding of Exodus story more widely.

One of those reflections is offered in “Isn’t It Time,” and here is another:

Sometimes we are Bat Pharaoh…
…Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing “compassion” without hesitation, pulling the baby out of the river and giving him a home. But when we pull him from the river, he is taken from his people and forced to pretend to be someone else in order to survive. And we know that he is family and we love him as our son, but we ask impossible things of him. We ask him to pass for [Mitzrayim-ite], we cut him off from his heritage in the hopes of keeping him safe. We do not recognize the futility, that safety is always an illusion. We do not use our proximity to power to try to change the situation for other babies like him. We can sleep at night because we tell ourselves we are good people living in a cruel system, but we do not admit that we could change things if only we would convince our synagogue to support the protests, or to at least stop hiring police officers to protect High Holiday services without questioning whether they make all of our community feel safe.
— Mixed Multitudes Haggadah Supplement (also #BLM Haggadah), JFREJ

A few more questions:

Rather than assuming we’re one character or group in the Exodus story, we can ask:

How are we like the midwives at the start of the story (Ex 1:15-21): attempting to stand up to power and for life? or worn down by a grinding, harmful system?

How are we like Moses (Ex 2ff), struggling with identity — raised in one household and culture but connected in many ways to another?

How are we like Pharaoh (Ex 1ff): impatient with the past and fearful of the future, ready to knock down anyone or anything that threatens those we believe we must protect?

Considering ourselves as Yisrael-ite or Mitzrayim-ite, what assumptions and experiences form our views?

Can we learn to hold more than one point of view at the same time or in conversation with one another?

The question of Who Are We? in the Exodus story must be paired with the question “Who Are We NOT?” Stay tuned for the next episode of “Isn’t It Time” — subscribe here or through Spotify, Apple Podcasts and other podcasting apps.

I am still trying to figure out how best to create channels for conversation around these topics. Meanwhile download the booklet at Rereading4Liberation.com and send suggestions for shared learning.

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?”


Location and Identity: Isn’t It Time? 2

Re-reading Exodus for 2023 and the Passover season ahead continues with a look at location and its relationship to identity for individuals and groups.

Location and Identity: Isn’t It Time, episode 2. Apologies for background noise

Sources referenced available in a Sefaria Sheet.

The Book of Exodus opens with a group of individuals showing up in a place that is new to them:

Now these are the names of the sons of Yisrael, who came into Mitzrayim with Jacob; every man came with his household (Ex 1:1).

וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הַבָּאִים מִצְרָיְמָה אֵת יַעֲקֹב אִישׁ וּבֵיתוֹ בָּאוּ

— Exodus 1:1, JPS adapted

At this point in the narrative, without the Genesis prequel or other background, we know nothing about the people already living in Mitzrayim, and only that these sons of Yisrael moved to a new place and traveled with their households. So this is a moment to consider how our own backgrounds influence our assumptions about these, and any, groups of people.

  • Were we taught to consider either Yisrael or Mitzrayim “our people”? If so, how do we relate to the other group?
  • Do we identify with attachment to home and feelings about building community with newcomers?
  • Do we identify with feelings about leaving home and hopes for a better future?
  • How do we imagine these groups in the story, in terms of family structure, ethnic background, sexuality, wealth and other factors? Are they like or unlike us?

It is within my lifetime, and maybe in yours, that it became common to note that “these are the names” includes only men and to remark on how quickly the few women in Exodus disappear from the story. It is still far less common to recognize that some gender expressions and sexualities are not reflected at all in the Bible or in most Bible teaching.

Mitzrayim” is the Hebrew word for biblical Egypt. But it is often read, literarily, as “the Narrow Place.” One way of rereading for new understanding is to notice the Narrowness in our own readings and seek out other perspectives.

Our Own Location

Looking at the early narrative of Exodus, can we explain, for ourselves and others, how our background influences our perspectives on what is happening in the opening verse of Exodus?

Some of us have more experience in considering the basics of our social location. Those of us with more privilege — due to a range of factors — might think these factors “don’t matter.” But, being able to articulate clearly what we bring into any encounter with others and with text is an important tool for this journey. Links to more useful resources are below, and here is one more…

The following passage is from a research piece, discussing an urban economic development project a few years prior to publication seven years ago:

Neighborhood residents — particularly homeowners and White residents — as well as the local community development corporations, city agencies, and elected officials saw the planning process as inclusive of neighborhood goals and needs…..

This chapter argues that the [city] government, neighborhood groups, housing advocates, and developers instituted some of the best practices in urban planning and housing policy, which sought to deconcentrate poverty and focus on dense, mixed-use, mixed-income, and multimodal transit-oriented development….However, these best practices exposed a tension between neighborhood planning and citywide goals, as well as the conflicting goals within the neighborhood. While the residents who remained retained power in the collective and private spacers of their homes and residential buildings, the dramatic changes in the concentration of poverty and race meant that African American and low-income residents’ ability to control public and social spaces in the community was challenged by the neighborhood’s changing form. More importantly, a narrative of dysfunction [about the area] from 1968 to 2002 continues to justify changes throughout the neighborhood.

Those are the words of Kathryn Howell, now Associate Professor, Virginia Commonwealth University. The piece is called “It’s Complicated: Long-Term Residents and Their Relationships to Gentrification in Washington, DC,” and found in the book, Capital Dilemma: Growth and Inequality in Washington DC.

I deliberately elided specific references to DC and its Columbia Heights neighborhood. The piece is both quite specific and much more widely applicable. I highly recommend the book: Detailed Publisher’s info here. DC Public Library has a few copies, check out other libraries.

Still Arriving?

Returning to the first verse of Exodus, we might notice that The Book of Exodus begins mid-thought: “Now these are the names of the sons of Yisrael,who came into Mitzrayim with Jacob; every man came with his household.” We’ll talk more about Starting Points for any storytelling in a future discussion. For now, though, note that, according to many teachers, the conjunction at the start of the first verse — usually translated as “Now,” sometimes “And” — serves to link the Exodus story to Genesis. In addition, the text uses an odd expression, ha-baim mitzraymah, which is usually translated with a past-tense verb, as in the (slightly adapted) Jewish Publication Society version just read — “who came into Mitzrayim.” But centuries of commentary points out that the Hebrew is indeterminate present tense,”ha-baim,” instead of the more usual past tense, asher ba-u, and so can be understood as “who were arriving.”

Some read this in relation to worsening conditions described as the Exodus narrative begins — maybe developing cruelty and servitude made the Yisraelites forget better years in Genesis; maybe the Yisraelites are only just arriving into Mitzrayim, as the Narrow Place of oppression, as conditions for them rapidly deteriorate in the narrative.

And things do go wrong quickly, as Exodus opens. After the introductory verse and a list of the brothers in verses 2 through 5, Joseph and his whole generation dies. The Yisraelites become an “Am,” a people without individual names, and grow numerous. By verse 10, the king is plotting against the Yisraelites. Affliction begins in verse 11, and the Yisraelites are being forced to serve under crushing labor by verse 13.

In this speedy narration, Mitzrayim, too, becomes an amorphous collective entity, “Amo-o,” his people, meaning the king’s. The leader himself is called by the generic terms, King and Pharaoh.

The first 14 verses of Exodus do seem to support the idea that, whatever life was like for them previously, the Yisraeliteswere arriving” in a new reality. At the same time, the storytelling emphasizes connections with Genesis….and Rereading Exodus along the Anacostia focuses quite a bit on Joseph’s involvement with the government of Mitzrayim and economic changes he engineered in that prequel to Exodus…. So, in Exodus we find new conditions, that somehow seem unexpected, and the deep roots of those conditions in a past this is both distant and very present.

In this way Exodus simply reflects reality — that faced in the ancient world and today.

I am still trying to figure out how best to create channels for conversation, across local communities and beyond. Subscribe to the blog and share comments here. Or, for those who prefer podcast subscription, find Isn’t It Time on Spotify, Apple Podcast, PocketCast and other services.

This is Virginia Avniel Spatz saying: “Isn’t It Time to Reread Exodus?”


Additional Resources

More on Social Location and bible study

See also Fortress Press Peoples’ Companion to the Bible

Rhonda Magee’s Color Insight paper

Cannot recommend highly enough — now in paper and at libraries:  Rhonda Magee’s Inner Work of Racial Justice

See also White Space, Black Hood, referenced on Sefaria Source Sheet.

Self, Possessions, Community: Isn’t It Time? Episode 1

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.

Defining Community

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.