Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh: the Imperative of Joy

On Sunday evening at our Second Seder we counted the plagues:

world wide pandemic and more than 2.5 million souls lost

Oregon fires

Texas ice storm 

George Floyd

economic hardship

assault on the U.S. Capitol

children in U.S. concentration camps

31 million people without health insurance

white supremacy violence

The Federal government repeatedly using weapons of war against Portland citizens

Our Haggadah refuses to narrate the story of freedom without stopping to grieve. It is painful to learn this, but the lesson is demonstrably true over millennia: human life is a mixture of joy and pain, triumph and bitterness, of Pyrrhic victories and defeat’s silver linings. 

All the more remarkable, then, that our ancient tradition also insists on lifting up the moments of joy shining like a shaft of light through all the darkness. Yes there is fear, and pain, and confusion; yes, there are birds singing in the trees after the ice storm, and people who will hold out their hand to you when you are hurting. 

The story of the Israelites’ escape from Egypt is easy to look back from this distance. Through the veil of centuries the past is hazy. It’s easy to tell children the simple story: Moshe Rabbenu led us all out, and we all followed. Even though the Torah itself will show us repeatedly in the upcoming Book of BaMidbar (Numbers) that we fought constantly and drove our leader to despair, we all still have a mental image of a group that suffered, a group that walked out of Egypt bravely, a group that crossed the Sea, and a group that stood at Sinai.

In truth, it’s always more complicated. Midrash, that layer of ancient lore which fills in the human dimension of Torah, lays it out:

only one-fifth of the Israelites left Egypt; the other four-fifths died in Egypt, for they refused to believe. (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael 13.19.3)

All the more precious, then, to celebrate when we reach the other side of the sea. On this Shabbat hol hamo’ed Pesakh the terror begins our special Torah reading:

וּפַרְעֹ֖ה הִקְרִ֑יב וַיִּשְׂאוּ֩ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֨ל אֶת־עֵינֵיהֶ֜ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִצְרַ֣יִם ׀ נֹסֵ֣עַ אַחֲרֵיהֶ֗ם וַיִּֽירְאוּ֙ מְאֹ֔ד וַיִּצְעֲק֥וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל־יְהוָֽה׃

Pharaoh and the chariots of war drew closer and closer to the Israelite people, and it was terrifying, and we screamed out our fear (Exodus 14.10)

And after the chaos and fear, there is the silence of finding ourselves on the other side: somehow, suddenly, the din is over and it is just us. Bedraggled, but safe for the moment, on the far side of the fear we once knew. 

Then the prophet Miriam fills the silence with her famous song, teaching us in this first instance the lesson that will sustain us through all our existence as a people: there must be moments of joy.

וַתִּקַּח֩ מִרְיָ֨ם הַנְּבִיאָ֜ה אֲח֧וֹת אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶת־הַתֹּ֖ף בְּיָדָ֑הּ וַתֵּצֶ֤אןָ כָֽל־הַנָּשִׁים֙ אַחֲרֶ֔יהָ בְּתֻפִּ֖ים וּבִמְחֹלֹֽת

Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took the drum in her hand, and all the women followed after her with their drums, in circle dance

וַתַּ֥עַן לָהֶ֖ם מִרְיָ֑ם שִׁ֤ירוּ לַֽיהוָה֙ כִּֽי־גָאֹ֣ה גָּאָ֔ה ס֥וּס וְרֹכְב֖וֹ רָמָ֥ה בַיָּֽם׃ 

Miriam shaped their response: sing gratitude and praise! our terror is drowned in the sea!

(Exodus 15.20-21)

On this Shabbat, we lift up our joy. On this Shabbat, in the face of fears past and future uncertainty, we take this sacred moment to feel gratitude for what has been, and focus on confidence in what we know we are.

On this Shabbat, may you who are hurt, wounded, unhappy after a year of plagues and so much stress, find the burden of your sorrow lightened and the veil of your fears lifted. May the Sea you have crossed, in between the pain of the past and all we are able to imagine going wrong in the future, nevertheless turn in your memory and imagination from a terrifying wall of death to a life-giving mikveh of hope. 

mo’adim l’simkha – May the Intermediate Days of the Festival bring you joy!

shabbat shalom

Rabbi Ariel

Because What Do I Know about Love

Except that we are at sea in it 

– and parched for its lack?

Let down your buckets, my dears. 

Haul up the sweet, swaying spill.

Tilt your face to the stream.

Be washed. 

Be drenched. 

Turn loose

the dripping dogs to shake themselves among you.

Flood the decks; fill the cisterns. 

Then drink, and find it fresh.

You have sailed all unknowing

into your home river.

– author unknown

Shabbat BeShalakh: What Do You See in the Sea?

This week, the Shabbat of the parashah BeShalakh, is also called Shabbat Shirah, the “Shabbat of the Song”, in honor of the fact that on this week we read the Song of the Sea in the scroll. The Israelites have crossed over through the Sea on dry ground, and the Egyptians who pursued them have drowned in those same waters.

As our ancestors gather on the far shore, astonished by what they’ve experienced, one might imagine that they were speechless. Perhaps there was no sound at all for a few moments, from that whole motley group. Imagine them: self-identified Israelites (those who held a family memory of descent from the sons of Jacob), and with them, others – those who were attracted to the strong family culture of the people of Israel even under the stress of slavery in Egypt. Finally, there were those who saw a good thing when the Hebrew slaves made their miraculous jailbreak, and went with them through the suddenly-opened gate to freedom.

There were a lot of them. They did not all know each other. And now, with a moment to breathe, they looked back at the way they had come, at the Sea, and then at each other. Now what?

They sang. We call it Shirat haYam, the “Song of the Sea”.

Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dances. And Miriam called to them: “Sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider G-d has thrown into the sea.” (Ex.15.20-21)

The first expression of the refugees is joy, and gratitude. And within this rejoicing, one finds a very personal expression of religious awakening. First, one becomes aware of one’s own joy; then, upon reflection, one begins to feel gratitude for the happiness. This is the first step toward a personal sense of religious awareness: the dawning knowledge that one is grateful.

Moses and the people of Israel sang: I will sing to G-d, for G-d has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has G-d thrown into the sea. G-d is my strength and song, G-d is become my salvation. This is my G-d, and I will praise, my parents’ G-d, and I will exalt (Ex.15.1-2)

This song then expresses the next steps in religious awareness: beyond gratitude for my good fortune, and onward to the recognition that I could never have escaped the Egyptians alone. A strength greater than my own, something beyond my own small intellectual capacity, brought me to this moment. I could not have planned this and carried it out alone; circumstances were also aligned just exactly right. I become aware of something beyond me, which is a part of me, and carries me, too.

This is my G-d – I reach my own sense of  awe, of that which I respect as greater than me, but also mine.

my parents’ G-d – only now can I begin to understand what my parents have revered; only now can I start to see the ethics of their lives, that which they care about most.

Now what? what happens after we cross the Sea and realized that now, we are on our own? When this door opens, it shows the Israelites – and us – the way forward into the future. And that future is much wandering, bumbling our way toward a distant vision, with lots of false starts, lots of dead ends, and some days when we’ll wonder if we truly are on the right path. The religiously aware path is a long one, but it does offer us certain steps toward the Promise of wholeness within ourselves, with our families, our tribes, our people, and the world. It begins with G-d and ends with G-d, and every day is one more opportunity to become aware.

This is not esoteric knowledge: all of us cross our own Seas, and all of us have eyes and hearts to see. In a wonderfully subversive ancient teaching, it is written that “a servant girl saw at the Sea what Isaiah, Ezekiel, and all other prophets did not behold”. (Mekhilta)

This Song of the Sea united the refugees on the shores of the sea, and it unites us still. The Song is incorporated into our daily prayers; we sing it whenever we recite the mi kamokha. Wherever you are on this Shabbat, may you find yourself with the Jewish people in spirit as we offer up, once again this year, our chorus of joy for awareness of our reasons for gratitude for that which is beyond us, and blesses our existence.