Parsha Beshalach: Seas of Change

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites stand at the shore of the Red Sea, with an army of Egyptians behind them and uncertainty before them. The Israelites are afraid and they cry out to Moses, “Did you lead us from Egypt only so that we may die in the wilderness?” God tells Moses to speak to the Israelites, and to urge them to go forward.

What would you have done? In an ancient scriptural exegesis known as the Mechilta, Rabbi Ishmael writes that the Israelites had four different reactions to this moment.

One faction said: “Let us cast ourselves into the sea.”
A second faction said, “Let us return to Egypt.”
A third said, “Let us wage war against the Egyptians.”
A fourth said, “Let us cry out to G‑d.”

When you are feeling trapped, which one are you? Do you run forward into a new problem to escape another? Do you go back to a situation that is familiar to you, even if you know that it’s unsafe? Do you fight? Do you cry for help?

Moses has an answer for each of them.

To those who said, “Let us cast ourselves into the sea,” he said: “Fear not; stand by and see the salvation of G‑d.”
To those who said, “Let us return to Egypt,” he said: “As you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again anymore, forever.”
To those who said, “Let us wage war against them,” he said: “G‑d shall fight for you.”
And to those who said, “Let us cry out to G‑d,” he said: “And you shall be silent.”

It seems counterintuitive to a lot of wisdom about leadership that asks us to meet people where they are. Moses, speaking on God’s behalf, instead pushes the Israelites right out of their comfort zone. In times of urgency, leaders need to be directive.

A midrash tells of another type of leader in this story, a man named Nachshon, who dared to walk into the sea – they say that the water split when he was in up to his nose.

Maybe Nachshon trusted that God would save the Israelites. Maybe he had no idea what would happen, and preferred to drown rather than to return to enslavement. Maybe he didn’t know what else to do, so he just kept moving forward.

When have you dared to try something new, something that seemed impossible, because it was better than what you were leaving behind? What are the possibilities that found you on the other side?

We are entering a Shabbat and a long weekend replete with countless symbols of change – marches across the country on Saturday, and on Monday, Martin Luther King Jr Day coincides with Tu b’Shevat, a Jewish holiday that celebrates trees, the earth, and all things that grow. As you approach these and other moments of change this week, I invite you to consider the four ways the Israelites responded at the sea. Will you run back toward the familiar? Will you fight or cry out in fear? Or will you take that first courageous step into the unknown, singing, as our ancestors did, when you find freedom on the other side? I close this week’s Torah portion with a poem from Siddur Sha’ar Zahav, a blessing on this journey, and on every journey forward. Shabbat Shalom.

Cold Feet

They say cold feet are a sign of turning back,

The failure of internal will –

But I say it can be the other way,

The body’s anticipation of things to come.

Whether demons are nipping at your heels

Or gnawing within, here’s the thing:

Settle quietly, close your eyes,

Then take the most deliberate, deep breath,

As though it were the very first (God’s breath) –

And when you can feel it penetrate every bit of your being,

Making the rest of your life possible,

You open your eyes

And take that first step out into the sea of reeds.

Watered feet are just the price of coming home.

New Years Non-Reflection

I don’t want to reflect on 2018. I want it to disappear. I want to forget about it – forget the miscarriage (as if I ever could), forget the shootings, forget the anxiety, forget powerlessness. I want to get to the part where I’m looking back, proud of myself for making it through, proud of where I arrived instead of anguished at what it took to get there.

I don’t want to reflect on 2018. I reflected in the fall, when the leaves turned, the semester started, and the Jewish new year began. I reflect weekly, daily, hourly, too often and not enough. I’m always reflecting and never looking forward. The horizon is so far away, so uncertain. The waves of the present are too dizzying. I’m holding on with all I’ve got, trying too hard to find stillness. The past is so safe and stable. I use words to tame it so that it becomes narrative, with endings and beginnings that rhyme, with circles that connect. Making meaning is a way of reclaiming power over moments that felt devoid of it. Reflecting through writing is a way of making the present into past.

I don’t want to reflect on 2018. I just want to carry you all with me into the new year. Those of you who made each moment sweeter – new friends from ALEPH and DLTI, and the recordings I made with our music that wrapped itself around me when I felt alone. Old friends who know my heart, who supported me through the darkest moments, the ones who helped me cry, and the ones who celebrated each small victory along the way. Thank you for never asking me to be anyone but me.

Come with me. Let’s run. Let’s leave it behind. Let’s forget to reflect and forget to remember. Let’s just hold those moments close, the ones we want to keep – campfires, colors, conversations, songs, creativity, mentorship – the moments when we knew, “This is who I am, and I am right where I should be.” Thank you for creating those beautiful realities with me.

Happy 2019, beloveds. May it be a year when our hearts find what we yearn for, and a year when our souls say thank you for something every single day.

A Christmas Message from a Future Rabbi

The house in my parent’s neighborhood with the most impressive annual lights display had a few additions this year. There was someone dressed up as the Grinch, and someone else dressed up as Rudolph. And there was a poster that says “God Bless Our First Responders.” Because, after the Woolsey fire, some in our community don’t have a home to decorate this year.

Eagle View Park

Earlier in the day, my mom and I drove by the park that J and I frequented when we were dating, where I pushed my niece in the swing last Thanksgiving – right across from the park where we used to have our high school cross-country meets. The cross-country park was closed off entirely. The other was burned out on one side. I didn’t recognize the park when we pulled up beside it at first. I even asked my mom where we were.

Oak Canyon Park

When I visited over Thanksgiving, I was awash in relief that my family’s home was spared, and I couldn’t bring myself to drive around to see the rest. This time, with space to take it all in, I’m more aware of what was lost.

So even though I don’t celebrate Christmas, I can’t tell you how grateful I felt when I saw everyone gathered and singing together outside this house with all of its lights. Kids played in the machine-made snow, families dropped canned food into the donation bins, and everyone snapped pictures with the Grinch and Rudolph. It may be Christmas, Chinese food, a day off, or Tuesdsay – whatever you celebrate today, I hope it’s a good one. Sending lots of love to all of you, today and always.