How to outmaneuver a tyrant

Jews have been outsmarting, outrunning and outlasting tyrants – both petty and terrifying – since the dawn of human history.

Here are some tips and tricks from the original Rules for Radicals, the book of Exodus.

Take care of yourself. Joseph was the first innocent Jew to be brutalized by the Egyptian regime, but even in prison, he kept his spiritual faculties intact and did not despair. The dream world, thought in Jewish literature to come from the highest levels of Divine energy, nourished Joseph just as dreams or prayer or meditation or yoga or hiking might nourish us. We must find and maintain whatever it is that feeds our souls, even – no, particularly – in hard times. Audre Lourde reminds us that caring for ourselves “is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” From Joseph to Lourde to us, we are reminded that we cannot save ourselves if there is not a self to be saved.

Look beyond your tribe. The Egyptian regime oppressed not just Joseph, of course, but the whole Israelite population. They were bitterly enslaved, with harsh labor, and then, when the government decided that they had grown too numerous, murdered. The government gave the command to kill all the newborn Jewish babies, but two midwives who tended to the Hebrews refused to comply. Shifra and Puah wrote no letters and marched in no protests; they simply refused and resisted. They are described as women with the awe of God, and it’s easy to imagine these midwives, intimately involved with the miracle of birth, loving and honoring all life – not just the lives that looked most like theirs. We learn in the Sabbath liturgy that the breath of all life is needed to praise the Creator; to insist that only some breath is needed is blasphemy.

Fight the system, not the visible face of oppression. Where Shifra and Puah resisted within their world of midwifery, it wasn’t till Moses and Aaron that the Israelites overthrew the edicts that brutalized them. Young Moses was a hothead, killing Egyptian soldiers and running off hooligans who were harassing people – reacting to the visible faces of oppression. It wasn’t till God taught him to start focusing on structures that liberation happened. Moses had to learn that Pharaoh wasn’t going to give up his massive, enslaved workforce easily; it was going to take determination and dedication. God needed to teach Moses to go back to Pharaoh again and again and again – 10 times, each time with greater and greater power – in order to achieve liberation. Moses was a hero of the moment; God had to teach him to be the hero of a movement. Moses comes to teach us to keep our eyes on the prize – not on cultivating outrage, but on marshalling the power needed to dismantle structures of oppression.

Dance, dance, dance. Finally, the Israelites crossed the sea, miraculously achieving liberation of a sort. Miriam took her tambourine and led the people in dance and song, because as Rose Schneiderman teaches us, “we need bread, and we need roses, too.” Liberation wasn’t just about survival; it was – and is – about music and art and dance and love as well.

The struggles for freedom we face today are not unique and they are not unprecedented. If history teaches anything, it’s that people – sufficiently organized and motivated – can outrun and outlast even the mightiest enemies. Now is the time to learn from our ancestors and do it again.

About the Author
Brent Spodek is rabbi at Beacon Hebrew Alliance in Beacon, New York. He is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute and a Fellow of the Schusterman Foundation. He previously served as the Rabbi in Residence at American Jewish World Service and the Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in New York. Brent has been recognized by the Jewish Forward as one of the most inspiring rabbis in America, and by Newsweek/The Daily Beast as "a rabbi to watch." Brent holds rabbinic ordination and a masters in philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was the first recipient of the Neubauer Fellowship. Prior to entering the rabbinate, he attended Wesleyan University and worked as a daily journalist in Durham, NC. He lives in Beacon with his wife Alison, a professor of environmental chemistry at Vassar College and their two children, Noa and Abraham.
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