JOI Session | Oct. 9, 2009

In the first hour we worked with the two values that we are focusing on as a group right now: patience and calmness. Eliza led the group in some breathing and meditation exercises that can hopefully be used to maintain focus in our work when we are tempted to distraction and/or feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. The majority of the session was spent reading and discussing the second chapter of Exodus, (which describes Moses’ birth, adoption by the Pharoah’s daughter, his slaying of an Egyptian slave driver followed by his expulsion as a result of this action and finally, his finally as a result of his wanderings, settling down in the small town of Midian as a sheep herder). Rabbi Jonah Pesner, who is facilitating our sessions on the reading of Exodus, asked us to think about what the text says about leadership, relationship building and action. With this framework our conversation highlighted the following learnings and questions:

  1. Many of the key actions in this chapter are played out by actors that are are traditionally and seemingly powerless in the society of the time: women. These women are successful because their actions are subtle, strategic, and because they are dependent on working together with other women with whom they have formed relationships. This is in stark contrast to the actions of Moses, who indeed has much more power, as the adopted son of the Pharoah and a man, but does not use his power in a strategic way and therefore fails. Moses chooses to speak for other people and defend them without first making relationships or asking what their needs are. He acts alone and with an authority that he has not earned from the people. How can we use our privilege in a positive instead of an oppressive manner?
  2. Moses names his child Gershon, meaning, “I have been a stranger in a foreign land”. Does Moses’ experience struggling as an outsider in Midian validate his future work as an organizer? Does an organizer need to experience oppression and/or “otherness” before he/she can organize?
  3. Moses may have been (according to some) the first organizer, but his actions in this chapter show us that he was not born an organizer. He makes mistakes. He realizes that fighting oppression with violence was not an effective tactic, and next time he sees something that he identifies as “wrong” (a Hebrew hitting another Hebrew), instead of forcing his own beliefs on the situation he asks the question, “WHY do you strike your fellow?” It is important in organizing to let people come to their own conclusions about their actions and choices; it is our job as an organizer to prompt (and agitate!) people to think about these difficult questions.
  4. Finally, in the last paragraph of the reading, Pharaoh dies and the Hebrew people begin to moan and cry out. They realize that even though their oppressor died, they are still slaves. Why does God wait until the people have called out to help them? If God is almighty, why does he not step in and save his people from bondage? How can we be careful not to put responsibility on the oppressed to realize and denounce their own oppression, but also be aware that the oppressed cannot fight for redemption until they have done so?
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