The recent Sony hacking scandal raised an uproar about the movie The Interview with Seth Rogen and James Franco. But it also caused an uproar about James Bond.
Emails leaked as part of that hack reveal that the co-chair of Sony Pictures believes that Idris Elba should be the next actor to play British agent James Bond, a role currently occupied by Daniel Craig.
The character of James Bond, the suave spy originally created in a series of novels by Ian Fleming, has been a fixture of the movies since Sean Connery originated the role in Dr. No in 1962. Elba, who is known for his work on The Wire, is black. Every previous actor who played the role is white.
This raised some hackles, especially as voiced by conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh. In reacting to this, Limbaugh insisted that Elba could not play Bond because Bond, as written, is white. Limbaugh’s comments received their own reaction.
This is not the only issue of race and casting to make news recently. Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings, a retelling of the biblical narrative of Moses, received criticism for its casting choices, since white actors portray the main roles of Moses and Pharaoh (and others).
Interestingly it seems that the same people who would criticize Limbaugh and affirm Elba as James Bond would be the same to object to Moses being played by Christian Bale—that it would be OK for a black man to portray a traditionally white character, but not OK for a white actor to play a character who historically would not have been white. But perhaps there is not much difference.
People who lived in the ancient Near East may not have looked like Christian Bale. Yet, the book of Exodus, which we began in our weekly Torah reading last week, is not a history book about the ancient Near East. When we read the biblical text we do not read it looking for details about the past, but rather for our present. We read the stories for the lessons that underlie them; the characters portrayed in the stories are not meant to be actual people, but archetypes that transcend time and place.
And although James Bond is a contemporary character, and although Ian Fleming did write the Bond character with a particular racial profile in mind, that character has also become an archetype.
Therefore, when it comes to the movies, there is no one way to portray these archetypal characters: Moses and Bond could be portrayed by either white or black actors.
We have recently once again confronted issues of race in this country, following several instances of black men being killed by white police officers. And these conversations about Moses and Bond, about race and the movies, are part of this larger issue. Our views about race and the movies are not about the characters themselves, but about ourselves. So let’s continue to have these conversations.
Parshat Shmot which we read this week contains one of the most bizarre incidents in all of the Torah. By putting it in its psychological context and reading it as psycho-drama, we may comes to terms with it and uncover its deeper meaning.
Moshe Rabanu (Moses our teacher) grew up in the royal palace of Egypt and was raised by the daughter of Pharoah. As a youth his connection to his birth family was apparently non existent, or tenuous at best. He was nurtured among the Egypt aristocracy – dressed like them, talked like them. He was educated like them and indeed was one of them. Yes, he harbored some vague memory of his biological roots, which comes to the fore in a late adolescent identity crisis. He goes forth from the palace to “see his brethren”. Deeply touched by their desperate plight, his empathy is aroused and he strikes out at a cruel Egyptian taskmaster and kills him. The crime is witnessed by none besides the Hebrew slave that Moshe had rescued, but none the less the next time he approaches the slaves he is taunted for his crime. Word of his act reaches the Egyptian authorities and a warrant is put out for his arrest. Moshe is forced to flee to Midian.
He becomes a man without an identity. The Israelites with whom he might have thought to reconnect, have stabbed him in the back. The Egyptians with whom he shares a common culture have turned against him. He is forsaken and utterly alone. In Midian he is taken in by the local idolatrous priest and begins life anew. He marries Tzipora, his benefactor’s daughter. Moshe gains a family and an identity – he becomes a Midianite shepherd. The memories of Egypt recede, as do those of the enslaved Hebrews. For approximately sixty years Moshe lives a quiet life in Midian.
And then his simple life is shaken to the foundation by the Voice that echoes out of the Burning Bush, the Voice that forces him to unearth the distant memories that he has all but forgotten. He hears about the bondage and suffering of his long lost brethren, about a covenant forged by Abraham with a mysterious and hidden God who now commands him to return to Egypt, stand up to the despotic Pharaoh, and lead the Hebrews to freedom in the Promised Land.
Moshe is reeling, sent into a psychological spiral by this frightening Voice and its utterly outlandish demands. How could he return to the land that made him a fugitive and to the people that rejected and betrayed him? What connection could he possibly forge with those distant wretched slaves? Why would he want to leave his comfortable life and identity and become a crusader on a suicidal mission? So Moshe refuses to accede to the demands of the Voice. But it is unrelenting. Moshe stands his ground but the Voice does not back down. Yes – no. Yes – no. They go back and forth. Five times God comes at him. And at the end of the encounter, God reiterates His request/command and disappears … and Moshe is left utterly alone. If he intended to refuse one last time, there is no one there to hear his refusal.
Will he go back to Egypt? We do not know and either does he. He is completely confused, hurt, lost. He packs up the family for a journey in order “see if his brethren in Egypt are still alive”. Not a word about leading them out of slavery, for he does not know what he will do. And neither does he know any longer who he is at all.
“At a night encampment on the way, the Lord encountered him and sought to kill him. So Tzipora took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and threw it at his legs, saying, You are indeed a bridegroom of blood to me. He then released His grip upon him, and she added, Bridegroom of blood – to the circumcised!”
Moshe experienced God as trying to kill him. Perhaps waking up at night in a cold sweat, after thrashing about for hours in the darkness while wracked by nightmarish questions of personal identity and doubts concerning his own adequacy, Moshe can take it no longer. He cries out in anguish in the dead of night. Tzipora awakens, realizing that her husband is in the throes of a complete breakdown. She takes things into her own hands, in a flash circumcising the couple’s young son, thereby making a powerful statement and showing her husband where his true loyalty must lie. We are of the circumcised she tells him, the blood covenant of circumcision will define who we are from this point forward. My husband – let there be no more equivocation, says she to him.
And Moshe at that moment experiences catharsis. The tension is broken. He now knows with utter certainty who he is and what he must do. The doubts are gone, the tensions resolved. Everything becomes clear. It is as if God has released the death grip upon him and he has been granted a new identity, and new lease on life. The man Moshe comes full circle and returns to his roots and to his true self. Through the sacrificial act of Tzipora, Moshe is transformed from a Midianite shepherd into the leader of the Israelites. The bridegroom of circumcisional blood will now make his way to the people whose identity will be cut in their flesh. And the Israelites will be redeemed!
My boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades. And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.
I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.
As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy. The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment. Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police. As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.
The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar? The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.
Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah. But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.” Doing generates empathy. You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food. Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.
Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.
This Monday night Jews around the world will sit down at their tables and embark on recreating the narrative of the Exodus through the rituals of the seder. We will immerse ourselves in the story from some 3,000 years ago that forged the Jewish people. We will eat matzah and bitter herbs to taste as our ancestors tasted. We will drink four cups of wine to symbolize the four stages of redemption that transpired during the Egyptian experience. However, this night does not belong to the Exodus alone.
If we do not allow the seder to inspire and move us to greater action we will have missed a key component on what the whole evening is all about. The Exodus becomes a central relational context for our connection to God: “I am the Lord, your God, who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 20:2).” It is used four separate times to introduce major components of Biblical legislation (Exodus 23:20, 23:9, Leviticus 19:34 and Deuteronomy 10:19). It is the framing by which future generations come to know their history and their people: “You shall say to your child, ‘We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…’ (Deuteronomy 6:21).” Simply, the Exodus is the hinge by which the entire covenantal experience rests.
The Exodus is not just a story to be told. It is an imperative to be acted upon.
What is that imperative? At it’s most basic level the Exodus compels us to liberate, to free and to make better the lives of those most impacted by persecution and oppression. To “know the spirit of the stranger” as the Bible reminds us multiple times is to empathize directly with the marginalized, the outliers and the ones on the margins. In that spirit the organization I work for, The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, has recently published an insert for your Haggadah that makes relevant the work of Passover into a concrete issue people living in Illinois face today. This is precisely the type of work Passover and the Exodus story calls us to. I encourage you to download the insert and even if the issue is not applicable for you, make it an impetus for the type of investigative work necessary that transforms the Exodus from simply a story into an imperative.
If I lived alone on Planet Laura, I would stop writing about the Pew survey, in protest against unproductive, polarized debate.
But here I am, on Planet Earth inhabiting the body of a Jewish communal professional. So I’ll write something in protest, instead. And I’ll argue that, deep down, we are not as polarized as we think.
We’ve seen the first set of Jewish responses to the survey. Some writers prophesied the death of Judaism, and the fulfillment of Hitler’s project of extermination. Others denounced this view as evidence of a “holocaust complex,” and instead celebrated the multicultural reincarnation of Jewry in America.
Personally, I think we’ve all got a bit of a holocaust complex.
Keep in mind that the Pew survey offers a snapshot of the Jewish people. If you look closely, you see it is not a new image. Actually, it dates back to Torah times.
In Torah, quantitative census data only appears in stories about taxes and armies. But qualitative data, in the form of narrative, pops up everywhere. Jews do not believe in God. They marry non-Jews in great numbers. They practice religious syncretism – blending Jewish rituals with those from other religions. Moses brings them back into national religious particularism, and then they fall away again.
This WAS the Jewish people. This still IS the Jewish people. Here we are, 3,000 years later, still living out our pattern.
For Israeli Depth Psychologist Erel Shalit, the lives of all human beings express archetypal patterns. Human psychological growth revolves around a number of key motifs. One, he says, is the “birth-death-rebirth theme of transformation.”
Anyone acquainted at all with Jewish practice knows how important this archetypal theme is to Jewish self-understanding. Over and over again, we move from slavery to freedom; we move from exile to return. We often describe our history as a repetition of this pattern.
Clearly, this is a Jewish national version of the “birth-death-rebirth theme of transformation.”
Does the holocaust fit this theme?
Some postwar Jewish theologians argued that it does not: the holocaust is an absolutely unique event, too terrible to be held by any existing categories or concepts. But the writing of some holocaust era activists argues otherwise.
Zivia Lubetkin, a secular Zionist leader in the Warsaw Ghetto underground, sometimes felt herself shaped by the Exodus from slavery to freedom. On the first night of the ghetto uprising, she wrote, she visited a Passover Seder, and received a blessing from a rabbi.
Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a Hasidic spiritual teacher in the Warsaw ghetto, framed his experience in similar terms. During the war, he told his followers: We finally understand the Israelites’ despair under Egyptian slavery. We literally see Isaiah’s vision of Babylonia’s cruelty, and we can share his hope for restoration. Perhaps our oppression will turn out to be birth-contractions of the Messiah.
The “birth-death-rebirth” theme of transformation.
So many of us are caught up in it. As we should be: our last national near-death experience was less than 60 years ago. That’s not even a whole lifetime ago.
For some of us, life events have directed our psychic energy towards the slavery/exile side of the process. When significant events trigger our emotions, we describe what we see.
Some of us were shaped differently; we focuse on freedom/return. When we are triggered, we, too, describe what we see.
We are all engaged in the business of transformation.
We have no choice. In our former European population centres, we were one thing; in our contemporary Israeli and North American centres, we will be different.
Yes, our old identity is dying. Yes, our new identity is being born. Yes.
Slavery and redemption. Exile and return. Death and Rebirth.
It’s an archetypal Jewish framework for understanding our history; let’s use it well.
Image: http://maditsmadfunny.wikia.co. Cross-Posted at OnSophiaStreet.
A couple of years ago, after several years of trying to get all the way through the counting of the Omer, I built an Omer-counter with a foolproof reminder system – my son. It’s based on the Christian advent calendar in that it’s a series of forty-nine boxes (seven rows of seven) which has randomly placed toys inside the boxes. NO more forgetting to count in the evening! Every night, I have an excellent reminder, and so I do not lose my chance to say the blessing when I count, or worse yet, forget altogether and have to quit counting for the year.
It’s a yearly frustration for lots of people who try to keep up with the Omer – it’s easy to screw it up and lose track, and according to the tradition, if you mess up, well, hey tough. You’re out of luck.
That’s why it’s odd that about a month into the Omer (today, in fact) there’s a little known holiday that’s about …second chances. Pesach sheni ( or “second passover”) is a biblically based holiday that happens because, as is related in Numbers chapter 9, when God commands the Israelites, a year after the exodus, to bring the passover offering, there were certain people who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and so, could not prepare the Passover offering on that day.
They approached Moses and Aaron and said, “We are unclean by the dead body of a man; wherefore are we to be kept back, so as not to bring the offering of God in its appointed season among the children of Israel?” (Numbers 9:7). After these people approached Moses and Aaron, God tells them that from then on, if anyone is ritually impure on passover, or is unable to keep passover for some other reason beyond their control, “he shall keep the passover unto God in the second month on the fourteenth day at dusk they shall keep it; they shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.” (Numbers 9:11)
Pesach sheni is a strange holiday. We don’t really observe it – mostly because there isn’t really anything to observe – there’s no requirements, since we no longer bring sacrifices. And yet, it’s sort of a shame. Here we are, in the midst of a period where every day counts, where there are no second chances, where you have to get it exactly right, or you lose your chance (at least until next year), and there’s this holiday that interrupts it for the purpose of giving a second chance for a holiday that occurred a month prior – and not only that, but it’s the only holiday we have the sole purpose of which is to make up for a holiday that someone missed out on.
What is that all about?
Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn is cited by his son-in-law as saying that, “Pesach Sheni teaches us that ‘Nothing is ever lost: it’s never too late!” and then the latter Schneersohn goes on to say, “Our conduct can always be rectified. Even someone who is impure, who was far away and even desired to be so, can still correct himself.” He continues, “Given the significance of Pesach Sheni, one might ask: Why was it instituted a full month after Pesach, in the month of Iyar? Wouldn’t it have been better to atone for our deficiencies at the earliest opportunity, in Nissan?”
“We can answer this question by comparing the spiritual characteristics of Nissan and Iyar. Nissan is the month of revelation, the month during which God revealed His greatness and redeemed the Jewish people despite their inadequacies. Iyar, by contrast, is the month of individual endeavor, a quality that is exemplified by the mitzvah of Sefirat HaOmer. The theme of Iyar, self-refinement initiated by the individual himself, is in keeping with the nature of Pesach Sheni, the festival in which an individual who was not motivated by Pesach is given an additional opportunity to elevate himself.”
So, two things:
First, the key to pesach sheni is precisely that it does occur a month later, during the Omer. Unlike the first Pesach, which is a national holiday, Pesach sheni is an individual’s holiday. The second thing is the way in which Pesach sheni came about – unlike well, pretty much everything else in the Torah, it isn’t initiated by God, given to Moses and Aaron and then passed on to the people. Instead, Pesach sheni is initiated by the people themselves, by a group of individuals. In fact, I know of really only one other case like this one: the daughters of Tzelophechad (which also appears in the book of Numbers, farther along, in Numbers 27), who challenged a law of inheritance whereby only sons could inherit, even if there weren’t any. They brought their challenge and God told Moses that they were right and amended the law.
I think that that parallel to the daughters of Tzelophechad is the key to why this is the only holiday that is a “make-up” for another holiday. It’s not just that it’s a group of individuals who want a make-up. It’s that these individuals saw a specific wrong that they wanted addressed, and they wanted it addressed for the sake of justice to individuals who have no control over being excluded from the nation. In the case of Tzelophechad’s daughters, the case is their sex; in the case of pesach sheni, it’s because they were doing another mitzvah ( caring for the dead). But the important thing is that these two cases are things which exclude them from the body of the nation in some crucial way. It is because of this that they take their complaint to God, and God answers them, “Of course, you are right.”
IN recent days, when we have seen so much change so quickly both in the Jewish community and out of it in regards to gay marriage and inclusion, this is a message that we should all take to heart. Pesach sheni isn’t merely a second chance for the individuals who were excluded, but is a second chance for the nation to include in its inheritance and in its moment of revelation everyone who throws their lot in with the Jewish people. Because even God can make a mistake, and even God can admit it and rectify it.
I will never forget the moment when my daughter came out. She was 5 years old. We were eating dinner as a family. My daughter put down her fork, placed her hand on the table, looked at my husband and me, and said “Mommy, Abba, I’m not going to marry a woman.”
Our daughter had come out as straight.
My husband and I both felt that it was important not to make any assumptions about our kids’ sexual orientation, and to make a concerted effort to reflect that value in conversation. So when we spoke about marriage with our kids, we always said, “If you fall in love with a man or a woman and want to get married,” etc. Turns out that, at least at this point in our kids’ development, both our son and daughter identify as straight. But it could have been different, and we knew that from before they were conceived.
Last week, when I changed my Facebook profile picture to an equality sign made out of matzah, my daughter asked what that was all about. I explained that the United States Supreme Court was in the process of discussing marriage equality and Prop 8 — the same legislation that our family protested four years ago when we lived in California — and that the equality sign affirms that both gay and straight couples who love each other should be able to get married. Her response? “Well, of course.”
But the matzah equality picture actually reflects much more. At our Passover seders last week, Jews throughout the world said “In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.” In other words, we are called upon to not simply understand the Israelites’ journey from slavery to freedom as the trajectory of our ancestors; rather, we must experience it as our own journey, allowing the story to seep into our very being and inspire us toward further action in our day. In every generation, we must remember our history — and we must use it as a catalyst, inspiring us to have the courage to move humankind to the next stage of liberation.
That next stage of human liberation is right in front of us. The matzah illustrates that this is not merely a secular issue: This is a Jewish issue as well. As a rabbi, my support for marriage equality is not in spite of my religious convictions; rather, it is because of my religious convictions that I stand strong on this issue. In every generation we must remember our oppression and we must work tirelessly to prevent the oppression of others. This is the Jewish way.
I have stood under a chuppah with many loving couples, creating a meaningful space for them to publicly celebrate their deep connection, transforming their partnership into a marriage. I long to live in a country that supports my ability as a rabbi to affirm the love of two consenting adults — whether gay or straight — who want to make a holy commitment to one another.
The word for marriage in Hebrew is kiddushin. Loosely translated as sanctification or holiness, kiddushin literally means separating, making distinct. From my experience working with couples, I can guarantee that each marriage is distinct. They each come with their own blessings and their own challenges. What they have in common is love. Commitment. A desire to spend a lifetime together. A dream of creating happiness with one another. A promise to hold each other up in difficult moments. A conviction to leave this world a little better than the couple found it. Each couple I have married truly believes that they live a more enriched, more meaningful life together than they ever would apart.
Is this kind of holiness limited to straight people? Of course not. It takes love, kindness, respect, a desire to support and build something greater than oneself, the courage to look inward and expand outward, a sense of humor and whole lot of work. Anybody who has a healthy marriage can tell you about that work. Because marriage is really hard. Why would we deny committed, holy love to courageous, determined people simply because of their gender?
My daughter may be straight, but even were she gay, my dedication to this issue would not stem from its impact on my own family. I am passionate about marriage equality because there are many, many people throughout these United States who are currently being denied simple rights that so many of us take for granted.
In every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt as part of the Exodus.
It is time to mobilize, to part the seas and walk together to the promised land that the founders of our great nation dreamt into existence. It is time to help our nation become a place that is truly built on “liberty and justice for all.”
It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.
This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.
In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:
Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.
Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.
We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process. Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?
Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.
After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
A few weeks before I began rabbinical school, I took a vacation and went to visit my in-laws where they were volunteering in the Peace Corps in the Ukraine. Although it was far from the first time I had traveled overseas – I had done quite a bit of traveling actually- visiting the Ukraine was quite different to any other experience I had had.
To travel to Ukraine, one had to apply for a visa, which was not always granted; Ukraine was still a relatively closed country, and did not welcome outsiders. It is a beautiful and interesting place, and we stayed for about a week, visiting different cities, meeting with people, talking to the people my mechutonim (in-laws) had been working with – all lovely. But after a day or two, something struck me as odd. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but as the week progressed, I finally realized what it was: there was an extreme regularity about people’s appearance. The relatively closed borders had resulted in a population where there were only a few facial types, skin shades only within a very narrow range (and of the rosy-cheeked variety that one reads about in fairy tales, but I had rarely seen in actual people), and so on.
Growing up in an urban area of the South Atlantic seaboard, I was used to seeing people of all sorts of colors, shapes, ethnicities; people who had immigrated in their own lifetimes or their parents’ or grandparents’. But in Ukraine, I saw none of that. Except, occasionally, I might see someone who looked different: they were easy to point out as “not Ukrainian.”
Until that trip, I had never really understood antisemitism. Not that I hadn’t experienced it – even in urban areas, we were still a location where one might encounter the sort of person who upon getting to know me might mourn, “you’re so nice, it’s such a shame that you’re going to hell,” or ask to examine my horns. But I never really understood what it meant for a person to live in a society where physically, they stood out as “other,” to the extent where they could be pointed out in the street. And when I suddenly grasped this in Ukraine, it was a bit of a revelation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah tells us that there were 600,000 men, plus children, and also an erev rav, a mixed multitude, went with them. This term, erev rav, later came to have a variety of connotations, not necessarily good ones: some commentators blamed this group for the Israelites straying after the golden calf. But the Torah makes no claims about who these people are at all.
I like to imagine that among them were the now-elderly Shifrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew women who refused to slaughter Israelite sons, and whom, the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:21), God rewarded. I expect that among this group were also other, non-Hebrew, slaves. Perhaps there were also Egyptians, neighbors and friends of the Israelites, or those who simply could not endure the oppression of the Pharaoh towards the Hebrews, and were glad to leave.
Whoever these people were, the Torah, after announcing their presence, goes on to remind us that while foreigners and hired servants who are not circumcised and part of the Israelite family do not eat the Passover sacrifice, if a person joins the community and the males of that family are circumcised, they become fully part of the community and partake of it. Moreover, whether they do or not, “there shall be one Torah for the citizen and for the stranger that lives among the Israelites (Exodus 12:49), that is one law, one justice, the same for everyone.
Until recent times, and in some places to this day, nationality is, indeed, a racial or ethnic category. In some places, it’s easy to point out who belongs, and who looks different, who isn’t “one of us.” But for Jews, this isn’t – or at least, ought not to be- the case. Jewish law insists that one who takes on our practices, who goes through conversion and lives by Jewish law is a full member of the family, regardless of color or origin. Jews who make a distinction between converts and natal Jews, or because someone doesn’t “look Jewish” are, in fact, in violation of Jewish law.
But, I don’t think it’s enough to stop there. In some parts of the Jewish community great care is taken to physically separate themselves from non-Jews, or from Jews who practice in different ways. It is true, that this has some effect in preventing exogamy, and thus increases the number of Jewish grandchildren. But it also misses the point. If Judaism has a mission, then surely that mission involves engaging with the world, and offering to it some of our gifts. But before those of us in liberal communities get too comfy, let me add that that separation doesn’t always take a physical turn. It is also a form of separation to use fear of the other as a fundraising tool, or to refuse to engage with others whom we fear.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, we ceased to offer sacrifices, and so there is no sacrifice partaken at the Passover seder. When we eat a seder meal, we invite in to eat “all who are hungry” in remembrance of a rabbi who opened his house to the hungry every night at the time of the Talmud. We invite all who wish to partake of a Passover meal. In earlier times, that was surely only and always other Jews, but today, it’s likely to be quite the erev rav. Many, if not most, of us have non-Jewish relatives. We invite non-Jewish friends who are curious about the seder, or moved by the story of the exodus. While the rabbis of past generations often saw non-Jews as a threat, or a seduction, today, in America at least, they are family, neighbors, and friends.
The Jewish community spends a great amount of time and money worrying about assimilating ourselves out of existence, but we often forget that that threat is there only because we are part of the fabric of every day life. More than tolerated, we are part of the American family.
In a place where everyone looks alike, and you can point to the person who looks different and say, “she’s the outsider,” there could once again be pogroms. And we are not done with that in the US either; as we have seen from recent events, being black in America is still “different,” and still dangerous. And of course, not everywhere is equally heterogeneous. But we are also not the Ukraine. If nothing else, America is a great erev rav, where everyone looks different, and whatever risks there are in that, we live in great blessing, where the Jewish community itself comes in a rainbow of colors, through marriage, conversion and adoption, and no less so are we part of a country where people from everywhere, of all colors, with a thousand different accents, live more or less in harmony.
Are we done with learning to get along? Not quite. Not completely. But it would be a mistake to think that we haven’t gained a great deal by mixing with our neighbors. I love the fact that at my seder table always has non-Jewish friends, people who look differently, think differently. I don’t fear my neighbors, no matter what they look like. We forget what an incredible blessing that is. In running the risk of getting mixed up, we also gain perspectives we never could have gotten from staying separate. There is holiness in separation, and we should continue to recognize our distinctions, but those distinctions are only relevant when we are among others with whom we can compare and discuss them.
This Passover, I’m feeling blessed not only in having been redeemed from Egypt to serve God, but I am thankful that I live in a place that when I walk down the street, I can see so many different kinds of faces, and God in all of them.