Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach! With Passover approaching and now passing, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be free. I’ve been thinking about the Midrash of Nachshon, an Israelite who walked into the Sea of Reeds up to his nose, ready to swim if necessary to freedom, before the Sea split. I’ve been thinking about how Mitzrayim means “a narrow place,” but how narrow that dry path between the Sea walls must have felt. I’ve been thinking about how hard life was for the Israelites in the desert, and how much they complained that at least in Egypt they had plenty to eat and drink and they knew what would become of them. I’ve been thinking about how hard it must have been for Moses or even Nachshon to lead a fearful people away from a comforting familiarity toward an uncertain future, which may be more liberated but which may also require a lot of emotional labor.
Tonight, we are in the throes of Pesach, and our Chol HaMoed reading for today situates us after the Exodus itself, in a time after the Israelites have crossed that sea and reached freedom from the Egyptians, only to find that life in the wilderness is also difficult. A frustrated Moses, tired of defending the Unknowable to the whiny Israelites, and tired of defending the whiny Israelites to the Unknowable, demands to see God’s face. God tells Moses that no man may see the face of God and live, so God instructs Moses to wait in a cleft in a rock — a narrow place — to wait for God to pass by, so that the Divine Goodness will be visible to Moses. So, we have left Mitzrayim, but the work of building freedom and breaking out of narrow spaces is not done. There is the narrow pathway of the dry space between the walls of the Sea of Reeds to walk through. There is the narrow space in the cliff face in which Moses nestles himself waiting for a glimpse of Divinity. There are many years wandering in the desert. There is fear. There is thirst and hunger. There is uncertainty about this Unknowable, Unseeable force. There is fighting, both within the community and with external forces. But, there is also freedom. There is dignity away from forced labor and attempted genocide. There is a taste of holiness, and a new peoplehood born.
Our Haftarah for this portion comes from Ezekiel, a prophet in exile in Babylonia, praying for the revival of a seemingly dead and cut off people. So many in the institutional Jewish world worry about what they see as a dwindling population of involved young Jews, and pray for the revival of Jewish life. I know sometimes we worry about membership in this congregation, too. But after spending some significant time with other millennial Jews lately, some of whom are unaffiliated and just reaffirming their commitments to Judaism and some of whom are fellow rabbis, rabbinical students, and otherwise observant young adults, I feel very confident that the Jewish community is plenty lively. I have so much faith for our future and our liberation. I believe that the future will be good for us. Though I work toward widespread and intersectional freedom, I am wholly aware that I cannot promise perfect freedom, though I don’t think anyone would expect me to. There is a lot of hard work ahead, maybe even 40 more years’ worth, before we will see a liberated world with freedom and dignity for all. But we’re ready to leave Mitzrayim. We ARE leaving Mitzrayim, this narrow place of feeling enslaved by historical trauma and the ever-looming threat of antisemitic violence. We are crossing the Sea of Reeds, navigating carefully through a narrow space that seeks to reinforce narratives of self-hating Jews, in order to come out the other side as self-loving Jews. We are stepping out from that cleft in the rock, the safe-feeling narrow space where we thought we might catch a glimpse of the Unknowable, but found we could only see the backside of Divine Goodness. We are raising our dry bones from the justice-starved, peace-parched earth and we are reviving Jewish commitment toward tzedek and tikkun olam. We are leading our community toward the future, a future of freedom and dignity for all. In the future, we will look back our promises to ourselves this Pesach, our commitments to show Elijah that we are ready for peace on Earth, and we will know we were on the right side of history.
May you find the courage to step into your own Sea of Reeds. May you navigate your narrow places and find self-affirmation, community, liberation, and love. May you catch a glimpse of Divinity. May you rise up as if from the dead, reborn as the Spring, to take a stand for freedom and dignity for all. And may Elijah find us next year worthy of a Messianic age, that we may all live in peace together. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.