Walk Forward: Exodus, Being Stuck, and Self-Actualization
Susannah Heschel writing about her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
“When he came home from Selma in 1965, my father wrote, ‘For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship: I felt my legs were praying.'”Susannah Heschel
A man named Lou Lachter Z”l recently passed. Rabbi Adam Greenwald‘s grandfather on his mother’s side, he joined the march from Selma to Montgomery with Rabbi Heschel and MLK that day. Rabbi Adam is my teacher and friend who directs the Miller Introduction to Judaism program at AJU; I’m currently in my fourth course with him.
At our first class this month we looked at the parshah (Torah portion) Exodus 14, where G-d says to Moses, Quit praying and get up and do something. Or if you will, prayer with actions, not with literal prayer:
וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מַה־תִּצְעַ֖ק אֵלָ֑י דַּבֵּ֥ר אֶל־בְּנֵי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל וְיִסָּֽעוּ׃
Then the LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward.G-D: Leave me alone, you got this
I loved this, and have written about the Do, not-just-say of Judaism (here, on Black civil rights and BLM) (here on Trumpism and doing the opposite and here on MLK and justice, too) that appeals to me, especially as someone coming from a Christian sphere. So I began doing, and writing this post, and then got stuck in the mud.
הוֹשִׁיעֵ֥נִי אֱלֹהִ֑ים כִּ֤י בָ֖אוּ מַ֣יִם עַד־נָֽפֶשׁ׃
Deliver me, O God, for the waters have reached my neck;
טָבַ֤עְתִּי ׀ בִּיוֵ֣ן מְ֭צוּלָה וְאֵ֣ין מָעֳמָ֑ד בָּ֥אתִי בְמַעֲמַקֵּי־מַ֝֗יִם וְשִׁבֹּ֥לֶת שְׁטָפָֽתְנִי׃
I am sinking into the slimy deep and find no foothold; I have come into the watery depths; the flood sweeps me away.Psalms 69:2-3
I am sunk in deep mire, per Psalms above: my own pandemic Groundhog’s day. I’ll be ok, and I got back into it.
There are some who tell in the Exodus story that the Israelites waded into the Sea of Reeds before it parted, pushing into the mud and trying to escape the army of the Pharaoh. Only then, because they acted, did the waters (metaphorically, to me) part; had they stood on the edge and merely called out for G-d, and not taken one step further at this first of 40 years of obstacles, where would we be?
Our people escapes a land where they were prisoner, yet they yearn to go back as soon as things get difficult. Egypt, the narrow place, was oppressive and they were not free, but it was familiar. It was the hell they knew, and it was warm and they did not have to rule themselves.
Self-rule, like self actualization, is hard work. Writing your own laws and rules, in the wilderness no less, is frightening.
In our hero origin story, luckily, they pushed forward, and the Jewish people were born. In my short time in Judaism I’ve looked at this parshah several times now and this was the first that I was struck by this being a rebirth story. We left the narrow place — in Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, narrow straits — which was the womb where the Jewish people were incubated. It was warm, but we weren’t free and were no longer safe. We left for a more narrow place, the chase from the Pharaoh and his chariots: the birth canal.
The scene was wet and bloody but we were born through action: the actions of Moses standing up to the biggest power in the region despite not wanting to take the role; and the actions of the people wading into the unknown waters.
The metaphor here was slavery, and I’ve done a lot of thinking about how among those first laws we received and created after freedom were how to then treat our own slaves. That’s a different analysis and definitely needs head-on confrontation.
Jason Aronson writes:
When God took us out of Mitzrayim, He extricated us from the place of constricted opportunities, tight control, and narrow-mindedness, where movement was severely limited.
Some wanted to return, a sort of Cairo Syndrome. I think of that now encountering right-wing Jews online, allied with a party and cult of personality around Nazi-sympathy and white nationalism. Maybe those people aren’t ready to escape their own narrow-mindedness and wish to still cling to old constructs, like metaphorical enslavement of others.
The only thing I can do is to free myself over and over. We are stuck in a 12-month mire of COVID and quarantine, and tonight is Purim 5781, a Hebrew calendar-year since our last time safely together in-person (March 9, to be exact).
And next month, in four short weeks, is Passover. It was our first Zoom holiday; it was unthinkable then that we’d still be here. We sat and retold the story of Exodus: the chase, the chariots, the plagues, the mire, and the sea — and brazenly declared Next year in person. What a bitter herb it is to swallow doing it again in isolation.
And how we will embrace on the other side of this sea in which we now float. Walk forward; next year, in person.
- The Challenge of the Selma Photograph, Susannah Heschel, PhD
- What the March at Selma means to the Jews, Susannah Heschel
- Miller Intro to Judaism Program at AJU