There’s a story (I think) from the ba’al shem tov, definitely from the hasidim
He was on a scholar in residence praying with a group of people in another community
He came home and his wife asked him how it went.
He said, “Well, the poor people were no problem, they didn’t take up much room at all. But the rich and important people? There were so many plaques everywhere and VIP seats and big egos,
The rich people took up so much room there was no room for God
And so the shechina, the divine presence could not rest with us.”
Ours is not a tradition where we try to see God, is it?
We don’t really allow holy images
Lest we get seduced or confused by those images
And start thinking that God is somehow more in those images
than in the frame around them or the wall on which the image rests
Or the eye that beholds the image.
In fact, Heschel once famously said (is there anything Heschel said that isn’t famous?)
We’re not allowed to have images because then we would then forget we are each and everyone of us made in the image of God.
Who in a moment of “mission drift”
Asks to see the face of God
(right after the golden calf debacle, btw)
Isn’t allowed to see God’s “face”
But can only see the “back” of God,
Which the rabbis understand to mean
That even Moshe, Moshe rabeinu
Can’t really see pure holiness right when it is happening
But can only see it after.
This makes a line in this week’s Torah that much more astounding
We are in one of the most eventful parshiot / portions in Torah
It is literally the crossing of the sea
It is so resonant I don’t even need to describe it or remind you about it
Many of you know it intimately --
The story from Passover, leaving Egypt
The sea open and right in the middle of the sea
We sing a song (a piece of which becomes mi chamocha, the prayer we just offered) and in the middle of that song we said:
“THIS, this is my God”
And I want to talk about just that kind of moment this shabbat
A moment of recognition of the holy one, of presence of God
A recognition of righteousness
(And this is the part of a Kitchen drash where I tell you that if the word God, an insufficient word if there ever was one, or even the idea of God makes you break out in hives, please stay, and say “holiness” or “ultimate meaning” or “righteousness”)
I want to talk tonight about this moment
Because I want to understand,
How do we know when we are in the presence of righteousness?
Not recognizing righteousness afterwards, not in a museum exhibit about a righteous time or a documentary or in a family story but right here in real time
Right now, how do we know?
We know that in our story they saw God in real time because the text says that the people all said, “Zeh eli!” This is my God!
Not, that WAS my God (like in the case of Moshe)
This is, right now.
And also notice that every single person recognized God or righteousness in that moment
It was personal for all of us.
Eli! My God!
Not only that, but it was embedded in what I’ll call
a heavily political moment.
Yes, there are miracles too happening, big miracles, no doubt (sea splitting, plagues)
But those miracles still does not negate the fact that a whole people, our people
And everyone who understood Pharaoh as a dictator and his system as oppressive
Everyone – not just Israelites, this is important to me --
No one was checking IDs at the sea
Everyone who was willing to go was included --
To join us illegals, and to risk their lives with ours
As we became emerging political revolutionaries
Our platform was simple: It was our refusal to accept slavery as inevitable
Our refusal to accept that when a person (a brother or sister) was systemically suffering at the hands of the powerful few
That our only choice was to look away
Instead, we were the people of Ulai / Perhaps
Yes, it is this way it is now but Ulai / Maybe it could still be yet another way.
Back to our story, it is in this
personal / communal / political moment that we see God
And the rabbis decide teach that seeing God was completely democratic
In fact, they take pains to teach that the lowliest person who crossed the sea
(Which they intermittently describe as a hand maiden or kitchen maid
Which doesn’t make sense because the whole story is that we were all slaves
The kitchen maid
according the rabbis
…beheld at the Red Sea what even the prophets never saw (Mekhilta d'Rabbi Yishmael 15:2:2).
What does this mean?
Maybe they are teaching us, that no matter our station, that when it is our own personal redemption we see things more clearly
Prophets, powerful as they are, are still intermediaries, after all.
Maybe when it is our very lives on the line
and the lives of those we love
and we understand it is our future that depends on a successful crossing of this sea
It is not academic any more, it is not up for debate
The crossing of the sea itself is a giant risk
And so easily becomes a giant prayer, as in, “Please God. Help me cross safely.”
Maybe if it were our kids, our relatives, our friend’s kids getting shot by police, in rough neighborhoods, in terrible schools, dying with remarkable consistency and without national alarm
If it were our families on the border, sleeping night after night on the streets
Maybe if we were convinced it was our daughters in danger, systemically and permanently victimized
Maybe if our last name was Blasey-Ford
Maybe then, were we to take the risk to cross all together, to march, to stand for our own lives and the lives of our loved ones, for the future, sure, but really for right now
For safety and dignity right now
We too would feel the fleeting but unmistakable presence of God, we too would see holiness for ourselves, just as we once did crossing the sea.
I admit in this private Jewish space what I will not say in the world
I worry that our relative power and privilege distances us from everything revolutionary, including and especially God
I worry we have become so afraid of losing what we have that risking for a greater good seems out of reach, and entirely impossible
I worry we can’t remember what it was like to be slaves, to really have our lives and our kids’ lives always on the line.
It is not that we don’t have worries as a Jewish community.
I, too, am rattled and a little afraid, and in pain after the events of recent months from the aggression in all forms against my religion and the Jews I love – not to mention our homeland -- aggression seemingly without any shame.
And so, I, maybe like you, am looking for strength – And so
I try to think of how those Jews I am so proud to have read about, to have learned about
Who participated in the Civil Rights struggle
Who entered rooms to try to begin to change America, some unfriendly rooms
Only twenty years after the shoah / holocaust, less!
Israel still a fledgling state
I want to know what gave them the courage to join in that time, what gave them the koach to see their part through.
And I wonder if it was because they were already vulnerable enough
That is, more vulnerable than we are today, even in these dark times
Or maybe they were just tzaddikim –
Regardless, whether that vulnerability was circumstantial or cultivated.
I wonder if it was that vulnerability that allowed them to risk yet more.
See they didn’t have too much to lose
And it hadn’t been too long since they knew what it was like to be really afraid
And I wonder if somehow, the wake up calls of anti-semitic behavior now might
Rather than cause us to shut our doors
Instead help us see that there is no such thing as just a few of us being safe
One group, a few groups being safe, while others suffer
I wonder if somehow, the wake up calls of anti-semitic behavior now might, in the same way as it once did
Help us see we are only safe if we involve ourselves in the greater good in this country, proud and vocal and super Jewish and in for the long haul.
In a second read of the same moment at the sea, it is not everyone including the Kitchen maids who see God
It is just…. the women and the babies.
Not what you expected, right?
And here’s what’s really something.
According to the rabbis, the women and babies are not seeing God for the first time
No, they recognized God, as in they were meeting again, as in they remembered God!
You see the rabbis determine that back in slavery, in Pharaoh’s Egypt
When Pharaoh said that all boy babies would be thrown in the rivers
And slavery seeped through every aspect of life
Many of the men decided to stop sleeping with their wives
And let’s expand this beyond gender categories and just say
Couples were not together any longer
But, say the rabbis, there were some women
And I am sure there were visionary people of all genders, too
Rabbis say these few, had faith, vision
They refused to accept a world where new children were an impossibility.
So, when their partners were working in the fields
They would go down and seduce them
And get pregnant, continuing life and hope.
And then of course, eventually, they had to deliver those contraband babies in secret
So some say it was the angels
And some say it was GOD – god’s very self – who came to be the midwife for those deliveries
To clean up the babies and tend to the mothers.
I am not making this up, this is Talmudic
See, Torah is teaching us that when there are tremendous risks, when we put ourselves on the line for hope, for the future, when we take a personal stance against oppression
God shows up.
This is why, according to the Talmud,
when we crossed the sea
These women and babies saw God first (Ein Yaakov, Sotah 1:35)
Because they knew what God looked like!
They saw the same God who had helped them before!
“That’s her!” That’s my God!” “Zeh (Zot) Eli!” “I know that midwife! She helped me when I risked my life one other time, a long time ago.”
This is why we risk. So that we know what God looks like. So that we will recognize her next time.
The rabbis suggest that just like in the creation story when God separated the waters and land emerged
Thus, “creating” land
As in, possibly, probably that land had been there all along,
So too, in the crossing of the sea
They say it was the same
The land was there all along, under the sea of course,
The possibility of safety, of crossing, of passage
Of a completely new way of being in the world
It was there the whole time
But it took this moment and these people to get God to bring it into being.
Just as God god’s self was there all along
And it took this moment and these people
To risk enough of themselves
To make enough room for one another
To understand that the stakes are too high to hide
To remember the risks they once took, before, long ago, or maybe it was their grandparents, great grandparents who risked
Which in turn allowed all of them to look up and see
What no prophet has seen before or since
Righteousness all around,
And God, right there, in all her messy glory.
(Mechilta, shir ha shirim rabba 3:9)