On Thursday I was invited to give an interfaith spiritual reflection as part of Interfaith Advocacy Day, sponsored by Faith Action Network:
Its wonderful to be here this morning to share some reflections as we set our minds and our hearts to do this work together this morning, this whole day. And I have to say, wow, what a week on our national scene. From the beginning of the primary season, to a State of the Union Address, to the completion of an impeachment trial, this was a powerful and challenging week for our country.
In the Jewish liturgical tradition, we read a section of our sacred scripture, the Torah, in order over the course of the year, each week on Shabbat, the Sabbath. This week is we read the portion Beshallach, from the book of Exodus, the climactic moment when the Israelites are finally freed from Egyptian slavery, and Moses leads them out to begin the journey to the Promised Land.
The promise of liberation is short-lived, for in the story the Israelites make their way only to arrive at the Red Sea, a tremendous body of water that is impossible to pass. At the same time, the Pharaoh decides to reclaim his slaves and sends out his army after them. Horses and chariots and soldiers are in full pursuit.
So these newly liberated slaves find themselves in an terrible situation: a body of water ahead of them, and an army behind them. They cry out to Moses, Moses cries out to God, God yells at Moses, until in a moment of inspiration Moses wields his staff as the Israelites move forward into the water, and the seas part. Passing through two walls of water the Israelites make their way to freedom, and as the army pursues, the waters return, washing them away.
What a tremendously, tremendously powerful story. It is one we tell in the Jewish tradition not only when we come to it in our Torah reading cycle, but celebrate each spring with the festival of Passover. And indeed it is one that is referenced constantly in our liturgies and worship—it serves as the paradigm of redemption, of personal and societal transformation, of moving out of a place of confinement and oppression to a place of expansiveness and liberation.
It is a story that has inspired generations in their own quest for freedom and deliverance, from ancient times to Dr. King and the Civil Rights movement, up to today.
There is a midrash, an ancient commentary, a story about the story as it were. It dates from the 11th century, and it imagines that when the sea parted and the Israelites went through, they began to complain and rebel. The text says,
“It was precisely at the moment went they went down into the sea bed, and found it full of mud, because it was still wet from the water. There were two Israelites Reuven and Shimon who were among the Israelites. As they walked through the sea, all they could talk about was the mud. Reuven said: ‘In Egypt, we had mud, and now in the sea we have mud. In Egypt, we had clay for bricks, and here too, we have an abundance of clay to make bricks.’ They rebelled at the sea, even though this was the parting of the Sea of Reeds! They didn’t notice the water, they only saw the mud.” (Shemot Rabbah 24:1)
We’ve been around low tide—its full of mud and clay and its sticky and it smells. And here are the Israelites, this commentary goes, on their way to a new life, experiencing a divine miracle, and all they see is the mud.
The point of the story when it is told centuries ago is that we need to be mindful of miracles, grateful for those interventions, and, as we might say, “we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Your freedom is ahead of you, don’t be concerned with the mud on your feet. Look for the good, not the bad, the path ahead, not the mud below. Keep your eyes and your hearts open.
And yet. I have a confession to make. I kinda feel like Reuven and Simeon these days.
I kinda feel stuck in the mud, that where we are currently is a bit of a slog. I will confess to you that there are days that I can not find hope, that the news is too overwhelming, the vitriol too caustic, the adherence to civic virtue nearly non-existent. “In Egypt we had mud, in the sea we have mud.” How is now any different than it was, and the future does not hold out much promise.
And then, I arrive here to see all of you here today, gathered together to do this work. This work of educating ourselves about these important issues. This work of connecting with our neighbors to share strategy and inspiration. This work of going over to that building and telling our elected leaders—rooted in our faith and emboldened with moral authority—that the world as it is is not the world as it could be.
And we remember, that yes, it is a bit of a slog. We need to trudge through the mud to get to where we are going. But that doesn’t make our arrival on the other side any less of a miracle. Indeed, that is the miracle—that we can create the world that we want through hard work and persistence. That we have the power to build relationships and tell our stories and change minds.
That we can advocate for solutions that bring about a more just and peaceful world that honors the inherent dignity of each and every person.
That we can say, we must care for Creation, using the best science and limitless creativity.
That we can say no to private prisons and the death penalty and discrimination.
That we can say welcome to those who come to this country seeking refuge and opportunity.
That we can say a we need a more equitable economic foundation with a fair distribution of resources, so that everyone has what they need including food, health care, and a home.
We can say this because we are a people of faith, rooted in our values and our texts, who are willing to go through the mud in order to get to the Promised Land. Indeed, we, more than anyone, know that that is the only way to get there.
I want to thank FAN for this opportunity this morning, and for organizing all of us together. And I thank all of you for showing up. Let’s get to work, and march through the mud.