TAKING A STAND
The Exodus:5 Project
And He said, “Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground. Exodus 3:5
There is a place on the wide expanse in Tiananmen that is sacred ground. A protestor of still-unknown identity planted his feet in front of advancing tanks that had come to disperse a political demonstration. The tanks halted; the world was electrified. The protestor, “Tank Man,” as he was called, was named to Time’s list of the 100 most important people of the twentieth century.
In a museum maintained by Troy University in Montgomery, Alabama there is an ordinary city bus. It was on that bus that Rosa Parks took a seat in the “colored section” during the days of segregation. When a white man wanted her seat, the driver ordered her to stand. She refused. By doing so, Mrs. Parks fanned the spark that eventually ignited the conscience of a nation.
Billions of people have traverse that avenue in Beijing and thousands sat in the seat of that bus, yet we honor the two individuals whose insistence on stopping and, literally or figuratively, taking a stand changed the world. The places were unremarkable. The actions were unique. The results were sacred.
My colleague Rabbi Ronne Friedman called to my attention what he described as “a classic case of misdirection” in the Bible. Most of us who do not read carefully have the impression that when Moses noticed the burning bush and heard God’s call, he was instructed to remove his sandals because the ground around the bush was holy ground. Isolating the verse above, it is obvious that the instructions are very different. The miraculous bush was not situated on holy ground. It was the place on which Moses was standing. It was the place where Moses stopped and noticed what was askew. It was the place where Moses answered the call.
Reports from Beijing on that day in 1989 included eye-witness accounts of other protestors blocking the path of tanks. In 1955, Rosa Parks was not the first and not the last to refuse to give up her seat. And who knows if God chose Moses by appearing where Moses stood, or if Moses chose God by noticing what others overlooked. (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner makes the point that you have to stare a long time at a fire to concluded that it is or is not consuming what is burning.)
But the fact is that the courageous actions of the individual have the ability to transform an everyday patch of asphalt, vinyl or sand into holy ground.
I don’t believe someone needs to be named to the “Time 100,” to provoke social transformation or to star in the Bible to imbue a place with sacred significance. I do believe that it is the act of stopping, noticing and bearing witness that can change the ordinary into the special. Sometimes doing so in the company of the many to repel noxious ideas and the people who promote them is what is called for. Sometimes stepping out of the shadows to call out the bad behavior of otherwise good people is what is necessary. Sometimes placing yourself steadfastly between a friend and a place of danger is the act of holiness.
The place where you take a stand, literally or figuratively, is the holy ground. Most of the time, the opportunity to act with courage and conviction is in plain sight; what will set you apart is paying attention to it. Once you notice, once you act, you will not just sanctify the place; you will consecrate your life and set a standard for others.
And if standing alone can be transformative, imagine the power of standing together.
The Exodus:5 Project
The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the Nile, while her maidens walked along the Nile. She spied the basket among the reeds and sent her slave girl to fetch it. Exodus 2:5
I have written before about my friend Heather Booth. She has, over the course of her adult life, changed the world through ideas and organizing. Lots of people have stories about her; now there is a documentary that tells them. But I get to tell mine.
She and I were engaged to develop a curriculum for synagogues wanting to pursue social justice causes. The curriculum never came to be, but a friendship did. It started when I asked her what motivated her activism.
She told me a peculiar parable. She said that if there were a town by a river and suddenly the cry went out that babies were drowning in the river, the response of most people would be to run down to the banks and start rescuing babies. She instead would run upstream to stop the babies from falling into the river in the first place.
Lots of people scoff at the story – how would babies fall into a river, they want to know. These are folks who don’t read the Bible. We owe the existence of Jewish tradition and every religion that emerged from it to a baby in a river. Moses’ mother Yokheved tried to keep her baby at home despite Pharaoh’s decree that all male infants be thrown into the Nile. In the end, she followed the letter if not the spirit of the law when she made a basket of reeds and waterproofed it with pitch and tucked her wonderful child into it. Then, she set it afloat on the Nile in the hopes that someone would rescue him.
But was Moses the only baby afloat on the Nile? Was his mother the only one who loved her child so dearly that she went to such a length to save his life? I don’t have evidence for an answer either way, but we do know that when this basket was discovered by the daughter of that self-same Pharaoh, she knew immediately that it was a “Hebrew baby.” Was this a unique experience for a prescient young woman, or were Egyptians accustomed to the desperate cleverness of the Israelite slaves?
Another friend, Peter Pitzele, holds open the delicious possibility that many Hebrew babies grew up in Egyptian homes. (It would explain a lot – the mixed multitude that left Egypt with the Israelites, the “ransom” of valuables paid by the Egyptians to the departing slaves and the survival of sons assumed to be first-born in some households.) These are the people who ran down to the river banks to rescue the babies. Pharaoh’s daughter, a hero by circumstance or divine intention, deserves the deepest gratitude of Moses’ parents and the Jewish people.
But she was no Heather Booth. She did not run upstream to prevent the babies from falling in. Her act of defiance against her father was no small thing – bringing the Hebrew child and his nanny/mother into the palace – but in the end, Pharaoh’s decree and his attempts to oppress and repress our slave ancestors continued unabated until another hero arose. Ironically, it was Moses.
What would the upstream run have looked like? Perhaps knowing the compassion of the Egyptian people, it might have meant a gathering on the steps of the palace to demand a change. Or perhaps a corps of Egyptian mothers might have appeared where the river’s edge met the settlement of the Israelites and offered to foster their boys. Maybe, despite the taskmasters, the artisans and craftsmen who made and laid bricks might have slowed their work or stopped it entirely in protest of the policy.
I am sorry we have no such model on which to rely at this moment in our sacred Scripture. The courage of the individual is nothing to sneeze at, but collective action doesn’t turn up for many chapters, and then on the wrong side of the Golden Calf affair.
Fortunately, we know today what organizing looks like. And that is in large measure because of Heather Booth and her extraordinary life. If you would like to meet here, see the movie. Or run upstream. She’s still there.
(Welcome to the next series in Aliba D'Rav: The Exodus:5 Project. Each week for 40 weeks this column will focus on the fifth verse of the next chapter of Exodus -- a number chosen because, well, just because. If you would like to receive these columns directly to your inbox, just send a note to the Google Group "Aliba D'Rav." I invite you to subscribe AND to send your friends to this website where other writings reside. And if you got excited because you thought Leon Uris had sent in a long-awaited set of sequels from the World to Come, spoiler alert: Ari Ben-Canaan's grandson becomes a tech mogul and marries an Israeli actress who plays a comic-book superhero.)
The Exodus:5 Project
The total number of persons that were of Jacob’s issue came to seventy, Joseph being already in Egypt. Exodus 1:5
My friend Randy gave me a terrific book that lampoons the notion that correlation has anything to do with causation. Though a series of overlapping graphs, Spurious Correlations (by Harvard student Tyler Vigen) demonstrates conclusively that over a ten-year period, the number of divorces in the State of Maine parallels the per capita consumption of margarine in the United States, and that the number of people who drowned after falling out of a fishing boat trends almost exactly with the number of marriages in Kentucky. (All this preceding Kim Davis skewing the results by refusing certain couples licenses.)
We have a fascination with numbers that leads us to believe ideas that are patently ridiculous. But because “numbers don’t lie,” we accept on some level connections that deceive us into illogic.
There is a “science” of numbers in interpreting the Bible that relies on correlations of this kind. It is called gematria and is a favorite of another friend of mine, Don (who knows Randy). In gematria, every Hebrew letter is assigned a number. By adding the numerical values of a given word, you can presume that it has a relationship to any other word with the same numerical value. For example, the Hebrew spelling of Chanukkah (which is more standardized than the English spelling) has a numerical total of 83. So does the word machala, which means “sickness.” A clever homileticist might suggest that the way we celebrate the winter holiday should make us sick or, conversely, that the events surrounding the rededication of the Temple reversed the sickness of foreign influences that weakened Jewish life. I could go either way.
But just because correlation does not imply causation does not mean that numbers are incidental. Back before mathematics, the days I yearned for in algebra and beyond, what we had was mostly addition and subtraction. Numbers were less exact or, perhaps, less factual than symbolic. As such, it is hard to read the ancient documents that we consider holy (like the Torah) with the same scientific precision as we read the algorithms that enable you to receive these words on the internets.
That’s true in very small ways today. Baskin-Robbins ice cream used to come in 31 flavors, and then it was 31 flavors plus chocolate and vanilla, and now they don’t even bother – but anyone of a certain age hears “31 flavors” and thinks “jamocha almond fudge.” Heinz probably had 57 varieties of sauces, but now it is simply a part of their logo. And when daylight savings time ends, 12:00 will be a different time than it was the day before – but will still represent noon and midnight.
One of the numbers with such meaning in the Bible is 70. There is a completeness to 70, a sense that it is a number that encompasses the wholeness of whatever is attached to it. The tradition insists that there are 70 nations in the world – the wholeness of the clans among the human family. The rabbis suggested that there are 70 facets to Torah – a reference to a cut gem that refracts light differently as it is rotated, but whose full splendor is impossible for the eye to capture at once. And Jacob had 70 offspring who landed in Egypt, not including Joseph, who was there already.
We don’t know the names of those 70 and therefore maybe we shouldn’t take the number so literally. But I am pretty sure we are meant to know that no one was left behind. Whatever happened to the children of Jacob happened to all of them. Whatever they accomplished, they accomplished together. Whatever blessings, whatever curses, whatever promises, whatever legacies – it was all or none. No one could stand apart and say, “I had nothing to do with any of this because my folks are back in the old country.”
There are 100 members of the United States Senate and 435 members of the House of Representatives. In the Senate, 100 is the new 70. In the House, it is 435. Whatever blessings, whatever curses, whatever promises, whatever legacies – it is all or nothing at all. Whatever they accomplish, they accomplish together.
And it may track with the number of listeners to talk radio or viewers of late-night talk shows. It may have a parallel graph with membership in certain churches or proclamation of absent faith. It may be remarkably similar to the per capita ounces of toothpaste in Utah or the number of calls for termite extermination in Phenix City, Alabama (population 32, 822). But correlation does not equal causation. Every one of those 535 human beings is responsible for the whole of ‘em.