When We Imagine Ourselves Allies

by Sarah Barasch-Hagans and Graie Barasch-Hagans 

BLM Supplement, JREF 2015

A Note from Sarah : This piece began as a way of addressing my identity as an Ashkenazi Jew from St. Louis who is involved in activism in Ferguson. Because this experience is so tied up with my relationships with my family and friends of color, I struggle with the abstractness of being a “white ally.” The language of fighting for family makes much more sense to me, as a responsibility incumbent upon me as a member of an interracial family unit and of a larger multiracial human family. When I went to the Exodus story for lessons about allies, I was struck by how many stories of allies and oppressors there were, and of how most of the characters inhabited both roles at different points. This squares with my understanding of intersectional identity and of how we make choices to act based on our perceived power. The Exodus story, and particularly the story of wandering afterwards, is populated by family members wrestling with what it means to be allied with each other. Since our current struggles can feel like we too are in a desert, I hope this Haggadah supplement is useful to those pausing this Passover to listen for justice, just as the Midrash tells us that entire Jewish family did at Sinai: paused together in the desert to hear the message of justice. If everywhere is a desert then the sand we stand on is always shifting, and so is our relationship to each other. Let us take a moment to imagine ourselves thus...

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 Egyptian, 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

Sometimes we are Moses… ...conditionally white with Cossack eyes and a quick sunburn, passing but keeping a suitcase by the door just in case. Feeling mostly safe in the palace walls, guilty but not knowing why, until one day everything changes. Until one day we see the Egyptian striking the Israelite and knows he is hurting our family—and this time we do not run away. We know that Moses killed the taskmaster, but we do not do not strike anyone, knowing that violence will not lead to greater justice for our families because violence by those of us who ‘pass’ would be met with greater violence and retaliation against those who cannot hide behind conditional whiteness. So sometimes we are standing next to our our Black husband at the protest, and we are both chanting peacefully but the policeman strikes him and all we can do is choose not to run away, to stand firmly with our hands raised so that we both get hit. Because family means if you hit him then you hit me.

Sometimes we are Miriam… ...hoping our brother Moses survives the river, knowing danger and feeling unsafe in our Jewish skin, knowing what it means to be hated because of who we are. And then we are Miriam who, given time, a few chapters later mocks Moses’ Black wife Tzipporah. She confounds us because she is us, Ashkenazim with conditional whiteness and generations distanced from legal discrimination, not seeing the contradictions in our own character. We are white-skinned Jews celebrating Fifty Years of Freedom Summer and putting on commemorative panels but escorting out anyone who yells #BlackLivesMatter. Or, acknowledging Tzipporah but refusing to defend her interracial, interfaith family when Jewish talking heads warn that families like hers are the end of Judaism. We are descendants of slaves who do not yell back that Moses had a Black wife and Black children and that #BlackLivesMatter to our people whether or not we acknowledge it. 

Sometimes we are Tzipporah… …fully capable of defending ourselves but in need of a few After the Maggid When We Imagine Ourselves Allies by Sarah Barasch-Hagans and Graie Barasch-Hagans 6 more allies. Ready to be an ally when it means leaving our family, circumcising our children, and wandering in the desert for decades. And some of us are still Tzipporah. Marveling at how quickly you forget this when our children are killed by the police. Wondering if you will claim us as family when the news paints our children as deserving of their deaths. We wonder why we stand in community to say Kaddish for those we’ve lost and stand on street corners shouting for justice for those who have been stolen from us. We wonder why our many parts cannot become whole and why our children cannot be a blessing. Picking up a sign because we have no choice, hoping to see you at the protests even though you do.

Sometimes something miraculous happens… …an event out of time, an act of God who comes with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm and leads us out of Egypt. And in the desert we become a people, shedding the divisions and mentality of slavery so that we become whole–none of us palace people, all of us desert people. Wandering together towards wholeness. So that Miriam, a prophet who is human, can choose to change. When she is struck with illness as punishment for her slander of Tzipporah, she can heal and choose new words. And her healing prayer spoken by her brother Moses-El Na Refa Na La-becomes liturgy that can inspire us to overcome the disease of our own racism. We can choose to challenge the narrative, write an editorial or interrupt a General Assembly, tell the pundits that we have always been an Erev Rav, a mixed multitude and if you do not embrace all of our family, then you cannot love any of us. We can choose to pick up our sign and join them in the street, to face the tear gas and the rubber bullets because they are killing our family.

Sometimes, we are all in the street, and the street becomes Sinai… ...but only if everyone shows up, Moses and Miriam and Bat Pharaoh and Tzipporah and all the rest, wrestling with the commandments and trying to hear God. Maybe we are Tzipporah and Bat Pharaoh meeting at a Mother’s March. And maybe we talk about being there because we are both mothers and Mike Brown could have been our son. Or maybe we talk about having ensured the survival of the Jewish people, yet isn’t it ironic that now our community will not march for anyone that looks like us? Or maybe we have nothing to talk about, but a look passes between us and God is there. And maybe our imagining their conversation is a holy act that we desperately need. Because sometimes, if we imagine the rally as Sinai then we listen for God, and when we do we get one step further through the desert and one step closer to redemption.

haggadah Section: -- Cup #2 & Dayenu
Source: BLM Supplement, JREJ 2015