A Clearing in the Wilderness of Egypt: In Gratitude to American Prophet Toni Morrison

B'shalach, Exodus 13:17−17:16

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Hilly Haber

So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they'd just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver --love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb or your life-giving parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.
-Toni Morrison, Beloved

In her book, Beloved, Toni Morrison describes a scene of revelatory, communal worship. In a clearing in the forest, protected by the trees, the broken-bodied and brokenhearted gather each week to pray together. Standing at the center of the gathering, their leader, Baby Suggs, calls out, "Let the children come," and tells them to, "let [their] mothers hear [them] laugh" (Toni Morrison, Beloved). At this moment, the forest rings with laughter, as parents look on and smile. Next, Baby Suggs calls the men into the field to dance, so that their wives and children can watch. Lastly, Baby Suggs calls the women into the circle to cry "for the living and the dead" (Toni Morrison, Beloved). When the women finish crying, the entire congregation joins in the center to laugh, dance, and cry. When they finish, Baby Suggs tells them, "the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it" (Toni Morrison, Beloved).

Protected by the trees, tucked away in the wilderness, Baby Suggs leads a group of oppressed and formerly enslaved people in prayer. The world outside of the clearing is harsh: these men, women, and children are treated not as human beings, but as property, as sub-human. In the clearing, Baby Suggs creates a world in which the men, women, and children learn to endlessly love and embrace themselves and one another. She creates a place for people to witness one another: for parents to see their children laugh, children to watch their fathers dance, and mothers to recognize and acknowledge the pain of their world.

A theology of justice and dignity flows through this scene. In the clearing, Baby Suggs' task is no less than prophetic. She creates an alternative reality for her congregation -- a place in which their bodies, minds, and spirits are infinitely beloved and imbued with humanity, a world in which laughter, dance, and tears flow freely. Like Moses leading the Israelite slaves out of Egypt toward a life of freedom and service, Baby Suggs creates a moment in and out of time for her community to experience a different way of being in the world. In the clearing, broken hearts and bodies are healed, transformed by prophetic ritual and its infinite possibility.

In this week's parashah, we watch as the Israelites leave Egypt and begin their long march to freedom. As they joyously cross through the parted shores of the sea, they sing and dance in praise of God, crying out, "Zeh Eli" -- "This is my God, the God I will exalt" (Exodus 15:2). Commenting on this verse, our sages wonder how the Israelites recognized God working in this moment. Probing this question, they imagine that when the Israelite children were born in Egypt, their mothers, fearing for the lives of their infants, brought them out into the very fields in which the Israelites labored and entrusted them to God. There, God would care for and nurture Israelite children, shielding them from the Egyptians until they were old enough to return to their mothers. It was these very children, the sages imagine, who recognized God as they crossed the sea and called out, " Zeh Eli," -- This is my God, the God who cared for me in the fields of Egypt (BT: Sotah 11b).

The God who redeemed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt is the same God who nursed Israelite children into adolescence, who showed them they were worthy of care and love despite the messages they received from the world around them. God opened a clearing in the fields of Egypt and, like Baby Suggs, God birthed a theology of humanity and dignity into the world. What lessons can we draw today from this midrash? What would it look like to construct a liberative theology and ethic rooted in that Divine clearing in the fields of Egypt?

In her essay, To Be Called Beloved; Womanist Ontology in Postmodern Reflection, Womanist theologian Emilie Townes offers a methodology for ethical reflection grounded in Morrison's clearing. She writes:

"The admonishment/sermon to love one's heart is an individual and a communal call to question the radical nature of oppression and devaluation of the self and the community in the context of structural evil...More than ever, we are challenged to consider the radical nature of particularity as foundation for ethical reflection." (Emilie Townes, Womanist Theological Ethics; A Reader)

Dr. Towne's ethical reflection begins in the clearing and is rooted in the question of what it means for African American society to be called beloved in the context of American history. From the clearing, Townes constructs a womanist ontology and theology of wholeness, one which lifts up the complexities of history and identity and is radically relational. Townes writes:

"This relational character calls us to moral responsibility and accountability for our lives and the lives of all those who have survived the diaspora. We are, in the most basic sense, each other's keeper. Out of this, we recognize the preciousness of life and the deep interconnection between body and spirit that will help us be made whole." (Emilie Townes, Womanist Theological Ethics; A Reader)

Grounded in the prophetic wilderness of Toni Morrison's text and American history, Dr. Townes constructs a relational and liberative ethic of dignity and care which, like the clearing, not only offers respite and sanctuary, but also a call to agency and action steeped in mutuality and radical love.

From the particularity of African American history and lived experience, Dr. Towne's offers a theology which reverberates universally and a methodology with which to construct liberative theologies based in other literary and historical moments and movements. To construct a theology and ethic from the clearing in Egypt is to imagine a God who nurtures the most vulnerable among us, who creates and convenes spaces in which people are lovingly provided with the materials, resources, and conditions necessary to grow and thrive, a God who empowers each of us embody and enact the lessons of Egypt in order to build a more just world.

Originally published: