Religion & Beliefs

Exodus for Activists

The Exodus narrative is, in many ways, the foundational Jewish story of freedom and the struggle for justice.  In this story, we meet the first Jewish organizer/social justice activist-Moses, son of slaves and adopted son of Pharaoh.  Moses’ story initiates … Read More

By / November 14, 2008

The Exodus narrative is, in many ways, the foundational Jewish story of freedom and the struggle for justice.  In this story, we meet the first Jewish organizer/social justice activist-Moses, son of slaves and adopted son of Pharaoh.  Moses’ story initiates the reader into the complex struggles and challenges of one who seeks to free a people from oppression. 


Moses makes mistakes, he resists his calling, he commits murder and causes additional suffering to the very people he’s come to save.  The obstacles he encounters run the gamut from Pharaoh’s hard-heartedness to the Israelites’ "narrowness of spirit."  Through it all, from slavery in Egypt through wandering in the wilderness, Moses must meet those challenges and remain an ongoing source of inspiration, teaching, and hope to those he has helped to liberate.

What lessons can be found in this story for contemporary Jews who work for justice?  What sources of inspiration and nurture does Jewish tradition provide for the Jewish activist?  Can we ask not only "how can we bring our political commitments into our religious life, our spirituality," but perhaps more importantly, "how can we bring our spirituality, our religious commitment, into our political work?"1


Beginning the Journey


In 2005-2006, we decided to explore these questions in a monthly gathering of Jews in the greater Boston area who work full-time in community organizing and social justice work. This group included 6 men and 7 women, ranging in age from their mid-20s to late 50s, some Jewishly affiliated, some not.  The organizations and issues they worked for included Grassroots International, United For a Fair Economy, NARAL, legal aid training, immigration law, Health Care for All, Oxfam, the Jewish Organizing Initiative, a local Jewish progressive group, and local community development and affordable housing organizations.


The stated goal of the project at the outset was to engage the participants in text study and other Jewish practices in order to:


  • explore connections between participants’ Jewish identity and their work for social change;
  • help sustain their activism by giving them tools for spiritual nurture;
  • create a forum to discover new paradigms for looking at contemporary social problems through the lens of the Exodus story, the Jewish "master narrative";
  • begin to shape an approach to social justice organizing that integrates the "inside" work of personal spiritual development with the "outside" work of creating social change.


The group met once a month a little over a year, engaging in text study, meditation, journaling and structured dyad conversations. The work we did together allowed the participants to connect on a deep level with the Jewish "master narrative" of the Exodus, created a space where they could bring together two key aspects of their identity, as Jews and as activists, and opened up discussion and exploration of the spiritual challenges of work for social justice.  In this article, we will focus on this latter aspect of the class.  We are thankful to everyone in the group for their honesty and willingness to open themselves to new and sometimes unfamiliar terrain. It was inspiring to share our love of Torah with people who bring all of their hearts and souls and strength to the work of repairing our fractured world.


Obstacles to Liberation


We spent quite a bit of time exploring the obstacles encountered in the Exodus narrative. One such obstacle appears in Exodus 5:9, after Moses has returned to Egypt to free the Hebrew slaves. He and his brother Aaron meet with the downtrodden Israelites to report that the great and powerful God of their ancestors is going to take them out of Egypt and bring them to the promised land. "But," the text reports, "[the Israelites] would not listen because of kotzer ruach and heavy labor."


Kotzer ruach, which might literally be translated "narrowness of spirit," can mean many things–including a constriction, narrowing, or diminution of consciousness, energy, or the willingness to pay attention. Community organizers and activists often work in the trenches with people of very limited privilege, power, and social-economic capital –new immigrants, the homeless, those without health insurance, prisoners, etc. Activists know what it is like not to be heard by those whose struggles they have joined.  The people who are not used to being heard are not always able to hear a message of liberation.


We focused on the experience of oppression and its impact on the oppressed, and then we went further and asked: Do we sitting in this room know the experience of kotzer ruach ? What is it in our life and work that constricts our soul, consciousness and spirit? This led to an exploration of the spiritual obstacles both within the activists and within their constituents and the realization that each character and every state described in the Exodus narrative can apply to any of us at different moments.


When we reflected honestly on our lives, we saw our own habits: the shortness of breath, the impatience, the frantic rushing, the feelings that this should be working better, and the deep exhaustion from overworking. All of these states keep us from being clear, present, connected, and alert. Ultimately they keep us from being awake and alive in this present moment. If we are asleep, how can we succeed in waking up others?


How do we work with this insight? One way is to act as Moses did-join with others to strengthen one’s will, and then approach Pharaoh directly. To get past the obstacles to our liberation, we must get close enough to see their true nature.   It is Pharaoh whom Moses has to encounter again and again; it is Pharaoh whose "heart is hardened" and who-even in the face of plagues and the suffering of his own people-cannot change his mind and let the Israelites go. In our group we started looking more deeply to identify who or what is "Pharaoh" in our world, in our work, today.


We began by identifying the "Pharaohs" around us, the political figures and systems of injustice we beat against each day. Then we moved into another level of inquiry. If we think of Pharaoh as symbolic of obstacles to liberation, what does the Torah’s depiction of him say about those obstacles?


An important moment came when one of the participants had the insight that in this exploration, we were not separating the internal and the external. We were willing to look inside as well as outside, and this perspective was a welcome revelation. She glimpsed the possibility of becoming more able to meet the external Pharaohs with strength and clarity when we had studied their formation within our own psyches.          


Aviva Zornberg has argued that Pharaoh hardened his heart as a result of "a demonic expression of the human desire to be unchanging and invulnerable like God." God, in Zornberg’s view, is apart from the world, but we humans can only act when we recognize that we are in the world. We must be able to acknowledge our own "vulnerability, insecurity, anxiety." 2 To fight against the Pharoahs of this world, we must become more open to the world, not less.  We must learn to embrace the process of change, and become aware of our own tendencies to remain unconscious, to be invulnerable.


Beyond the Obstacles: The Practice of Mindfulness


Our group used the meditative practice of becoming aware of our breath as a way to recognize,  from moment to moment, how fluid our lives are. We experienced the breath rising and passing without our effort, will or control. We noticed that everything was coming and going– stories, moods, states of mind. Nothing remained fixed and the same. We saw our very lives as part of a great flow of energy passing through time. Yet, there was within us a capacity to be aware of what was happening.


For example, at numerous points in our study we confronted the issue of fear.  The Exodus story begins with fear-the fear of Pharaoh and his people feel towards a strange people who dwell among them, a fear that leads to enslavement, to murderous commands to kill baby boys.  We explored Moses’ own hesitation and fear when called to return to Egypt and act as liberator.  We studied the night of terror before the Israelites left Egypt, the night they were called to mark their doors with lambs’ blood to distinguish themselves from their oppressor. In this act, the Israelites had to confront their own fears, marking themselves as slaves in rebellion, severing their connection to the society where they had lived for hundreds of years.


To deal with oppression is to deal with fear.  Governments and political leaders use fear to manipulate their constituents, to arouse strong feelings of "them" versus "us."  Those who organize against oppression inevitably deal with fear-fear of possible retribution by those in power; the fear that paralyzes those with whom we work; our own self-doubts, fears of failure, fear of the powers of injustice arrayed against us. What is the nature of fear, and what lies beyond fear for the Israelites in the text and for us? How do we move through fear? How do we act from faith in the very moment of fear?  How do we inspire faith, in ourselves and our followers? Faith in what?


We learned that we could address these questions through mindfulness meditation. We are quite certain that this type of mindfulness can serve activists in a number of ways. The practice of making space around unpleasant experiences is important in learning to respond rather than react. Activists face difficult and tense situations frequently. One can develop equanimity by practicing just "being with" provocation, tension and stress without doing something habitual and aversive that might be unwise. Breaking reactivity creates the opportunity to see options more clearly. One is then able to make choices based on desired consequences rather than reacting out of defensiveness, unproven assumptions, or irritation.


Through the practice of mindfulness, we learn to see the contents of our own minds without identifying every thought or story passing through as "me" or "mine" or "who I am." We become aware of the many competing messages and stories that inhabit each individual. We get to know the "crusading" mind, the thought process that is absolutely certain it always knows better and has the true answer for the other, within us as well as within the other. We get to see how unconscious reactions like judgment, fear and anger can deplete us and actually provoke what we are seeking to avoid. We become aware of when "Pharaoh" is present, when arrogance or perfectionism, control or anger, grips and hardens our hearts. It allows us to explore the experience of kotzer ruach, those times of constricted consciousness, of "soul shrinkage"-not to vanquish it but to know its causes and see its consequences.


Beyond the Obstacles: The Practice of Shabbat


One cannot speak about liberation in a Jewish idiom without reference to one of the great signposts and practices of that liberation, the Sabbath (Shabbat). Shabbat observance is a union of the twin themes of liberation and creation. It is the weekly pause that allows for completion and therefore prepares the ground for the emergence of something new. The possibility of liberation, on the psychic or social level, is the fulfillment of creation, the ongoing unfolding of the process initiated in the beginning. If there is no pause, no cessation of "doing," no letting go of the habitual and the stale, then change, growth, and new thinking can never emerge.


Shabbat appears first in Genesis, when God rests on the seventh day of creation, but the practice is introduced to the Israelites in Exodus 16, after they have left Egypt and crossed the Reed Sea. They are told that each day they must go out and collect a miraculous substance called manna, and that each person will end up with precisely the amount that s/he needs.  On the 6th day, however-the eve of the Sabbath-each person should collect a double portion, and refrain from harvesting the manna on the seventh day.  The Israelites had to trust that the double portion received on the eve of the Sabbath would suffice if they did not gather it on Shabbat. The story of the manna describes a spiritual training in faith, gratitude and renunciation of greed. These are all qualities that continuously need to be practiced.


We framed this text study by asking the participants to write about work and rest in their own lives. Do they take time off from work?  What are the challenges to structuring time for rest, time for oneself, outside of work?  We acknowledged that dedicating time and space for not "doing" and simply "being" when our work is about justice is especially difficult, and explored together what a Shabbat practice might mean on a practical level.  How might it serve us? What is its value? How do we cope with always feeling less than adequate in achieving our objectives, and how might the practice of Sabbath help us?


Each participant made a commitment to try, over the course of the next month, some kind of Shabbat practice (whether on Friday-Saturday or at some other time during the week).  These practices ranged from taking 20 minutes for silent meditation three times a week, to getting home by 8:00 pm on Friday to light Shabbat candles and share a meal with a partner, to attending a yoga class on Saturday afternoon.  For some participants, this aspect of the class was transformative, and initiated an ongoing Shabbat experience. For others, it was a first step in acknowledging the difficulty of taking time for oneself and putting limits around their work.


We realized after this session that exploring the Sabbath with a group of Jewish social justice activists could be a yearlong course unto itself. Shabbat is, in its essence, a bridge between spirituality and activism. Secular as well religiously-oriented activists struggle with the speed of life in the electronic age, with time diced into nanoseconds. How can Shabbat be a lifeline for individuals of great passion and intention who are exhausted and stressed from an absence of rest in their lives? Could this be a lifeline back to spirit as well?


The Sabbath connects inner and outer liberation; it is the Jewish response to the master-slave relationship as much as it is a form to reconnect to the interrelationship of all life, which flows from a reflection on creation. Just as the practice of mindfulness allows us to observe the present without attachment, Shabbat is a compelling way to remind ourselves of non-material values, as we step out of the chain of production and consumption for one period of the week.


Shabbat and mindfulness are practices that are always available to us. Through these practices, we can learn from the inside out about the rhythm of work and rest and the balance of effort and receptivity. Most of all we become available to keep learning and growing, listening to what is true in every new day, and experiencing the deeper layers of our own authentic being. This is the practice of liberation on the inside, which sustains and supports the work of liberation on the outside.


Building the Mishkan


The book of Exodus closes with the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary in the wilderness, and we also closed our year of study with the mishkan, as an inspiration for the work of justice and peace-building and as an image for our meditation and inner life. Toba has written an article called "And I Shall Dwell Among Them"  that served as our text for understanding the closing sections of Exodus as a climax of the narrative and a culminating moment in the story of liberation. The article asks: "What does it mean to create a ‘structure’ that allows God’s Presence to dwell among us? What can we learn from our ancestors’ experience of building the mishkan if we seek to build such a structure today? What does the building of the mishkan add to the mythic moments of redemption and revelation?"4  It closes with a reminder that the center of the mishkan held words of Torah and an empty space for holy encounter. Toba asks us to consider, in this light, "What would it take to create communities, a society, a world, where our collective efforts had at their center instructions for holy and ethical living, and an open space where we could listen to the Godliness in our midst?"  What is the work, both external and internal, that we need to go on that journey?


In our closing time together, we invited our students to contemplate the image of a place for God’s dwelling within. We suggest that the holy place might be the breath, or the bodily sensations or awareness itself. We sat together with the words of the prayer Ma Tovu , which praises the goodness of the mishkan of Israel, an abode of blessing. As we sat together we invited ourselves to rest in chesed, in great loving kindness-b‘rov chasdecha -making space for the breath, the thoughts, the sensations, the belly, the heart, the fears, the places of resistance, the emotions – just allowing everything to arise and pass with great chesed, great mercy. We kept returning to the sanctuary that holds all experience, the still and open space where we see the play of phenomena changing in time.


Va’ani esh’ta’cha’ve -"I will bow down", says the prayer.  We invited the inner gesture of a simple bow in recognition of this moment, just as it is, of gratitude for the processes of being alive, in wonder and amazement at how things are right now.


"How beloved is this mishkan – this place of indwelling." Recognizing and acknowledging the power of love to embrace without judgment, need, or expectation, I bow down in acceptance of the way things are in this moment. I bow down to what is given to us without our effort. Va-ani t’filati l’cha. I am my prayer to you. B’rov chas’decha, a’nay’ni, b’emet yish’echa – I bring an attitude of kindness to this moment, and I receive the deep understanding that the truth is transformative, the truth of the arising and passing, the truth of the interconnected nature of all, the truth of this small and separate identity being dissolved and embraced in the greater aliveness that is.


The Value of This Approach

For those who were able to make the commitment and stick with the group, the experience turned out to be very valuable, judging from participants’ evaluations and the group’s desire to continue meeting and studying together. One of the participants spoke in eloquent terms about her experience: "I don’t have time to say what I have learned from Exodus itself – and really much of it is at a non-verbal level. I have felt the text get under my skin, where it lives as images and a kind of luminosity. What stays with me is the archetypal nature of the journey of liberation, the way it lives on in history, and the way the historical and political is also spiritual. On a broader level, there is a greater appreciation of Torah as an unfolding human-God relationship story, where both humans and God grow and change and a fascinating array of patterns are established and documented. I would like to explore more how this plays out in contemporary life – how we are Torah, our lives and behavior are not perfect but they are part of an incredible story, and the history we are part of is as sacred and urgent as what we read about in Exodus."


As teachers/facilitators, both Sheila and Toba were impressed and often moved by the insights expressed by the participants during the discussions, and the way they made connections between the Exodus "master story" and their own work and lives. We have created a detailed curriculum, which will be available from the Institute for Jewish Spirituality [].  Based on this experience, we are convinced of the usefulness of such a program: an opportunity for Jews working full-time in social justice work/community organizing to come together to share experiences, to explore Jewish texts and their Jewish identity as these relate to their work in the world, and have an opportunity for spiritual reflection and development.  A significant number of progressive Jews who may have little or no connection to the organized Jewish community can be found in the world of social justice work and community organizing, and many of them experience their Judaism as a significant aspect of why they are doing that work.  This course of study and reflection is an opportunity for these Jews to connect more fully and deeply both to the riches of Jewish text and practice, and to Jewish community.



1 With thanks to  Rev. Hilda Ryumon Gutierrez Baldoquin for this insight.

2 Aviva Zornberg, The Particulars of Rapture, pages 103-104.

All images from Michael Rakowitz‘s piece paraSITE.