Crossing the Sea | Congregation Beth Am

Beshalach 5777 - February 10, 2017 

By Rabbi Heath Watenmaker on
February 10, 2017

Imagine what it must have been like. Just two days ago, you were sitting in your home with your family, alone, isolated from your neighbors, anxiously awaiting the latest decree from the ruler of the land. Waiting to see if the news would bring with it cause for hope or despair; the possibility of a turn from prior policy meaning freedom, or the introduction of harsh new legislation bringing greater uncertainty to your already fragile status.

And then, a shift. After a night of hasty packing and frantically collecting any scraps or morsels of food you could find, surrounded by distant screams all around you, as if the whole city was screaming, you awoke to a new day. Your neighbor came by with the news: the rumors were true, it was time to go. And so you gathered your family and whatever you could carry, walked through your reddened doorway, and bid farewell to your old life, uncertain of what would come next.

The procession began slowly -- a few disparate souls walking together, then joined by a few more, and a few more, then hundreds, then thousands. We walked together into the dry heat of the vast desert. After a day of walking, with aching back and weak legs, you stopped for the night, tossing and turning with the events of the last day running through your head.

This morning, you were awake before dawn, exhausted from troubled sleep. Tired and sore, you set out again, walking until you arrived at the shore of this massive sea. Your body still feels the memory of the whip, scars still healing, but as you look out at the sea, you can’t help but wonder if you wouldn’t have been safer back in Egypt. Where at least you knew what to expect. Here, in front of the sea, moving forward seems impossible - where is there to go? Your heart sinks as your mind searches for a reason, a solution, a prayer. And then it gets worse – as your fellow Israelites surround you at the water’s edge, you turn to look behind you – in the distance, you can make out the faint cloud of dust that can only mean one thing: the Egyptians are coming. You cry out, and your voice is joined by hundreds of others - a combination of panic and prayer. Finally, Moses speaks, trying to assure you that you will be okay, but you find it hard to believe him.

At the water’s edge, Moses calls out to God, you can hear the angst and the urgency in his voice, and then he looks at you, and tells you to go towards the water. You wonder - has Moses finally lost it? But he has led you this far. In the distance, you can just make out your friend Nachshon - always the daredevil - wading into the water, as everyone else around you seems to be arguing over Moses’ far-fetched plan. As you watch Nachshon, now up to his shoulders, then his chin, the waters begin to part. Within moments, the sea has split, a path of dry ground leads clear across to the far shore, translucent walls of water on either side. Moses, holding his arms high, turns back in your direction and shouts: Run!

So you do. You grab your belongings and your family, and you run. No longer alone, you are surrounded by hundreds, thousands; one massive entity moving across the ocean floor. You see someone stumble ahead of you, and another come to his aid. Someone else picks up a small child who had been separated from her mother. There is an energy to this mass, each person seems to be looking out for their fellow, making sure you all get through safely. A sea of people moving together, animated by one common goal: freedom.  

It is a powerful thing to be one in the midst of thousands of people. Two weeks ago, I was in Washington, DC with 20 of our 10th grade Confirmation students, participating in the Religious Action Center’s L’Taken social justice seminar. It’s an incredible weekend: our students spent their days learning about the key issues and legislation the RAC is currently addressing. They went through simulations of what it’s like to subsist on food stamps in this country or the arduous journey of a refugee seeking asylum. They celebrated Shabbat with 450 other teens from across the country. They explored the museums of the Smithsonian on the National Mall and thoughtfully reflected on the work of generations past as they visited the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Typically, the culmination of the seminar would come on Monday, when students met with the staff of Senator Dianne Feinstein, and our Representatives, Anna Eshoo and Ro Khanna, to lobby on the issues they felt most passionate about. The day before, they attended policy briefings, learned the details of current and prior legislation, read research studies and critical analysis of the issues. Then they spent the evening writing thoughtfully crafted speeches to deliver the following day. Our students focused on the issues of criminal justice reform, raising the minimum wage, campaign finance reform, reproductive rights, LGBT rights, climate change, and immigration policy. And on Monday, they were incredible as they delivered their speeches.

But the unique highlight of this year’s seminar came in a totally unscripted moment. As we got off the plane on Friday afternoon, we learned of the President’s executive order halting immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. By Saturday afternoon, our students learned on social media about a protest being planned the following day in front of the White House, and by Saturday night, they were asking me and the staff of the RAC if they could attend. Seeing their concern and passion, we couldn’t say no. As we sang the songs and blessings of Havdallah on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial that night, the service was live-streamed across the country, as a show of solidarity with refugees. What an opportunity to put the Jewish values we had been discussing all weekend - indeed throughout the year in Confirmation - into action. We checked in with their parents and got the okay, and developed a plan for how we would stay together and stay safe. On Sunday, they spent their lunch break making signs, then we headed over to the White House.

When we arrived, we stepped into the unknown as we joined the crowd as they walked down Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Capitol Hill. We were surrounded by a sea of people, all moving in the same direction; peacefully, but powerfully protesting injustice. It was an awe-some experience, moving with so many people as if we were one massive entity.

When we all met up to get back on the bus after the march, I finally exhaled. To say that I was impressed by our students would be an understatement. Indeed, I was truly inspired by their care, their passion, and their urgency in wanting to participate. In reflecting on why they felt so strongly, they talked of feelings of responsibility, of their own families immigration stories, of the Jewish value of caring for strangers, of the power of being part of such a huge group of people coming together to raise their voices for a shared cause.

Reaching the far shore of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites watched in awe as the waters came crashing down around the Egyptians, who disappeared into the foamy sea. And in that moment, they could finally exhale. After 430 years of holding their breath, of hoping and praying for something better, they stood as free men and women, no longer bound by their Egyptian oppressors. And so they sang. They sang a song of freedom and awe, a song of release, of joy, of true freedom. A song of thanks to the Divine, not for destroying the Egyptians, but for finally - finally - being free. This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Shirah - the Shabbat of Song - named for that song of freedom we read in this week’s Torah portion. In the midst of their song, though, they must have also felt the uncertainty of the unknown wilderness that spread out in front of them. Yes they were free, but they had not yet arrived in the Promised Land.

Rabbi Deborah Joselow writes, “The Song at the Sea begins with the Hebrew words ‘az ya-shir.’ Written in the future tense, the phrase can be understood as saying, “thus one will sing.” It is a fitting epilogue to an awesome moment, and it is a charge to all of us who continue to pursue freedom in all of its forms. The song that the Israelites sang is as much our inheritance as the cause of freedom. This path we travel is not without blood and sweat, but we are also obligated to fill it with the sounds of joy.”

For any of us who have ever journeyed out of a narrow and dark place, we know that when we recognize our arrival to other side, it is most often accompanied by an exhale, and often tears of relief and exhaustion. If we are to learn anything from our portion this week, we must also remember to sing, both as individuals and together as a community. This Sunday, we have an opportunity to stand together, maybe sing together too, as a community at a Jewish rally in support of refugees, organized by Rabbi Prosnit, beginning at Noon at the Mountain View Civic Center. I hope you’ll join us.

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