Israelite Tango [Guest Blog]
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by: Erica Lea
I have something kind of personal I think I need to share with you today. I feel kind of shy about it, but we have known each other for a while now. I think you can handle it. Ready? I love ballroom dancing. It’s true!
I know I have previously shared with you my love for square dancing which is its own quirkiness I carry from my Texas roots. I also love ballroom dancing. I have been known to watch YouTube videos of Dancing with the Stars like a football coach reviewing last week’s game footage.
I first tried a few different types of swing & ballroom dancing with a few friends during seminary. I’m not particularly good, but I enjoy it. There is nothing more elegant than a well-executed waltz. There is nothing more seductive than a well-executed tango.
The power of dance is sharing a story by showing rather than telling. The story of tango is often one partner pursuing & the other partner flirtatiously resisting, with flirty eyelashes- they banter & flirt back & forth.
This showing rather than telling, & pursuing & resisting is at the heart of today’s story from Exodus. Recall earlier in this narrative baby Moses is put in a basket on the Nile with a hope & prayer from his mother, Jochebed, & his sister, Miriam, during a time of Hebrew or Israelite [I’m going to use those names interchangeably] slavery & infanticide in Egypt.
If you have seen the animated movie, The Prince of Egypt, recall the opening scene panning between the slaves suffering & Jochebed running in & out of shadowy alleys with baby Moses. The song gives me chills every time, Deliver Us by Stephen Schwartz:
The Hebrew men struggle in the heat, shouting Mud! Sand! Water! Straw!
The Egyptian slave master shouts Faster!
Mud – and lift! Sand – and pull! Water – and raise up! Straw!
[back & forth]
With the sting of the whip on my shoulder
With the salt of my sweat on my brow
Elohim, God on high
Can you hear your people cry?
Hear our call, deliver us
Lord of all, remember us
Here in this burning sand
Hear our prayer
These years of slavery grow
Too cruel to stand
Send a shepherd to shepherd us
And deliver us to the Promised Land
It is no wonder that this passage from Exodus & larger narrative of dying slaves becoming free from their cruel slave masters intimately connects with African-Americans & Black Liberation Theology in particular, in addition to & in historically somewhat different ways Latin American Liberation Theology, Palestinian Liberation Theology, Queer Liberation Theology, & even others. Individuals in these groups have long cried out, “how long, O Lord? Deliver us!”
An important form of resistance & storytelling for Black slaves in America was through song. It is no coincidence that Harriet Tubman’s nickname or code name was Moses. Legend has it that she would sing Go Down Moses at different tempos as a code to indicate if it was safe or dangerous for slaves seeking freedom to proceed on the Underground Railroad .
Dance, in addition to song, has historically been a form of resistance for members of the larger African diaspora. In fact, tango has both African & European roots. Some scholars see tango as an evolution of candombe, a ceremony performed by former slaves. The word “tango” used to refer to gatherings of slaves in Argentina that included music & dancing. Naturally the colonial authorities attempted to shutdown & ban these types of gatherings in the late 1700s, recognizing the “danger” of people gathering together, resisting through art & community .
There is power in pursuing, resisting, & coming together.
As the Hebrew slaves continued to cry out, Moses is drawn into God’s presence after fleeing Egypt, that Divine presence described as a fire that did not consume. Moses & God tango, pursuing & resisting, about God calling Moses to return to Egypt in order to pursue Pharaoh, with full expectation that Pharaoh will resist releasing the Hebrews from slavery.
Spoiler alert- Pharaoh does resist!
After a showdown, or tango if you will, with Pharaoh’s high priests, the text attributes 10 plagues to the power of God. This is a not so gentle reminder of the God of the Hebrews as supreme, as the God who created & continues to create.
Each year during Passover Seder, that sacred meal our Jewish friends observe during the spring festival, their liturgy invites all participates to dip a finger in a cup of wine or grape juice & release a drop as each of the plagues is recounted:
3. Lice or gnats
5. Diseased livestock
10. Killing of the firstborn
In contemporary Haggadim, or Passover liturgy, contemporary plagues are lamented:
5. Prison industrial complex
6. Hurricanes & earthquakes
7. White supremacy
8. Elitist models of healthcare
9. Rape culture
And the list goes on…
It is not until we recognize trauma for what it is, until we count our traumas, that we can be healed. It is not until we see & touch our individual & collective traumas that we can pull them close & tango with them- pursuing & resisting.
In ASL, the sign for trauma is like a scratch on one’s forehead. Try it. It is kind of like J.K. Rowling’s character, Harry Potter, who bore a lightning bolt scar on his forehead as a sign of the trauma he survived as a baby. When you look in the mirror, you may or may not see a scar. When you look in the faces of people around you, you may or may not see their scars. That doesn’t mean the scars aren’t there.
We all have wounds & scars. Some are deeper or intensively impacting. I invite you to count your scars so that you may be set free of them. This may require beginning or continuing to see a licensed professional counselor. This may require naming something that happened in your past you have never named before. This may require forgiving a deceased person & trusting there is peace between ya’ll. This may require an overhauled image of who God is to you. It is time to tango with wounds & trauma- pursuing healing & resisting avoidance.
Unresolved trauma magnifies the trauma like an infected, festering wound. Where can you find stitches & Neosporin? Maybe even mental or spiritual surgery?
God is our great healer. As the Hebrews cried out to God, they put faith in healing from the Divine source. Sometimes that Diving healing even comes from other people such as Moses, Aaron, & Miriam’s leading by Divine guidance.
As the Hebrews are released & finally making their way out of Egypt, approaching the Red Sea, or Sea of Reeds, depending on how that is translated, the text says an angel of God went before & behind the Israelites, surrounding them in a cloud. 14:21- Moses stretched out his hand & the Lord drove the sea back, creating dry ground. As they crossed, the Egyptians followed them. The text says “the sea returned to its normal depth & the Lord tossed the Egyptians into the sea.”
Can you imagine looking over your shoulder & seeing mass slaughter, hearing the screams of your oppressor like they used to hear you scream? Perhaps you can imagine this because you have lived it. What did the Hebrews do? They rejoiced when they saw another person’s suffering!
I am of the perhaps unpopular opinion that this rejoicing & celebrating in the presence of the enemy’s genocide offered the Hebrews temporary relief, but compounded their trauma in the long run. They no longer tangoed- intense pursuing & resisting, they celebrated destruction.
It is tempting for us, survivors of varying levels & experiences of trauma, to do the same. To recite different Psalms of David, vengeance is the Lord’s & victory is mine, without recognizing that someone else near you or around the world may be praying the same text, hoping for your demise & destruction.
In our tangoing, our pursuing God’s justice & resisting human injustice, sometimes we take the wrong posture. A hallmark of tango is embrace. Open embrace- the lead & follow have space between their bodies, or close embrace- the lead & follow connect chest to chest such as in Argentine Tango, or connect in the upper thigh or hip area such as in International Tango. Tango- pursuing & resisting requires some type of embrace.
There is a teaching from the Talmud, the Rabbinical teachings, that goes like this:
The rabbi asks, “How do we know when the night is over and the day has arrived?”
One student replies: Rabbi, night is over and day arrives, when the only star seen is the sun.
Another student responds: Night is over and day arrives when you can see an animal in the field and determine if it belongs to you or to your neighbor.
“No,” says the Rabbi, “Night is over and day arrives when you can look into the face of the person beside you and you can see that they are your sibling. Night is over when you can see that you belong to each other. That you are one. Night has ended and day has arrived when you can see God in the face of the other.”
This is radical Good News that we are called to- not only wholeness for ourselves, but even restoration, justice, & wholeness for those individuals & systems who inflict trauma. This shift in posture makes God’s shalom possible.
A contemporary Haggadah, Passover liturgy for Seder, produced by the women’s program of the Jewish Community Center of the Upper West Side of Manhattan says this :
“As we ate our Pascal lambs that last night in Egypt the darkness was pierced with screams. Our door posts were protected by a sign of blood. But from the windows of the Egyptians rose an anguished cry: the death of the first-born.
Yah Sh’chinah [an appeal to God using a term associated with God’s feminine side] soften our hearts and the hearts of our enemies. Help us to dream new paths to freedom. So that the next sea-opening is not also a drowning; so that our singing is never again their wailing. So that our freedom leaves no one orphaned, childless, gasping for air.”
Perhaps the Hebrews could not help themselves. They suffered tremendously & for so long with waning faith. With each drop of sweat under the desert sun doing back breaking labor, their faith in God & the decency of humanity deteriorated along with their strength. I don’t blame them for dancing & celebrating. They were free! I get it.
I’ll close with this story:
On June 14, 2016 I attended my first Queer-friendly Dance Class sponsored by GLOE [the LGBTQ sub-community of the DC Jewish Community Center]. Recall the Pulse shootings in Orlando, Florida, that happened in the wee hours of June 12, 2016. The mood in the room at dance class was awkward. We were there to set aside gender roles, everyone learning to lead & follow, & to have fun. Maybe some people were there to pick up a date. The last thing we felt like doing was dancing. It felt even disrespectful to be dancing at a time of so much suffering in our community & around the world.
I’ll never forget the class opening with greeting remarks from the director of GLOE, sharing a traditional Jewish teaching: When we hurt, we pray. When we are distraught, we sing. When we are devastated beyond imagination, we dance.
Calvary, wherever life has brought us & wherever life leads us, may we continue to pray, sing, & dance, pursuing, resisting, & coming together. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship
The Hebrew word for Egypt is mitzrayim, meaning narrow place or constricted territory . For many LGBTQ people, being closeted is mitzrayim. Gender roles can be mitzrayim. The immigration system can be mitzrayim. Our image of God, the struggle to believe we are God’s beloved is mitzrayim- a limiting, a choking of love. This week consider areas of narrowness & struggle in your life & remember that people around you have their own mitzrayim too. Don’t limit forgiveness, healing. Don’t limit the ways you could see God at work, the ways you can experience Divine Love & Care.
2. Giménez, Gustavo Javier (30 September 2010). “Expresiones músico-religiosas como mecanismos de legitimación cultural. El caso de la comunidad africana en Buenos Aires entre 1776-1852”
4. Tamara Cohen, The Journey Continues, 70
5. Rebecca Alpert, Queer Bible Commentary
Rev. Erica Lea is a graduate of San Jacinto College, Texas A&M, & Truett Theological Seminary. She has served congregations in Wyoming, Texas, and North Carolina. She has served as Pastor in Residence at the historic Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. since 2014. Beginning November 2017, Erica will serve as Pastor of Albuquerque Mennonite Church as the first out LGBTQ lead pastor in Mennonite Church USA. When not at church or serving the community, Erica enjoys cooking, walking, movies, traveling, and time with her sweetheart. Connect with Erica online: Twitter- @RevEricaLea; revericalea.org.