The Difficult Work of the Erev Rav

The Israelites finally make their way out of Egypt in this week’s Torah portion of Beshallach. Having been freed by Pharaoh, the people make their way to the shore of the Red Sea. After Pharaoh dispatches his army after the freed slaves, the Israelites cry out to be saved from a seemingly impossible situation. Moses raises his staff, the waters part, and the Israelites pass through to safety. This stage of the Exodus is complete.

In describing the Israelite exodus from Egypt, the text notes that when they left, “a mixed multitude (erev rav) went up with them.” The mixed multitude was, according to commentaries, made up of Egyptians who joined with the Israelites in their leaving–former oppressors who had renounced their association with an oppressive regime and found common cause with the oppressed.

The population that went out of Egypt, according to the text, therefore was diverse, multicultural and multinational. Perhaps, we can posit, that liberation such as this is only possible with a diverse coalition of people who are willing to make the journey, with a mixed group of the oppressed and their allies.

It could not have been easy, this erev rav. Being in a diverse coalition such as this involves difficult work, confronting that which you at best disagree with or at worst dislike. Movements of liberation built on coalitions will bring together those who are united on some causes but not on others, and it is up to all of those present to be honest and open as to where the differences are, and when is it necessary to put them aside to be focused on the task at hand.

It is not comfortable to be in that position, but sometimes necessary.

This weekend is the Women’s March, and we are confronted with such a situation. With accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at some of the leaders of the national march—primarily because of various associations of some of the leaders—the Jewish community has been forced into difficult conversations both within itself and with its partners. Is it possible to be in partnership with those who share common cause yet who also associate with others we would find anathema?

Some answer “no” and distance themselves. Others answer “yes” and take the difficult seat at the table. At that table is an opportunity to share one’s own truth, and hear others’ truths. And this is where real relationship and change is forged.

We have seen change at the national level in the Women’s March as the organizers sat down with Jewish leaders, released a statement specifically condemning anti-Semitism, and most recently added Jewish women—including Jews of Color—to the organizing committee. Progress like this needed to be made because fighting forces of hatred in this country, which are being given official sanction by elected leaders, is too important at this moment in time.

We as Jews do need to call out anti-Semitism when we see it. And we also must remember, the anti-Semitism that killed 11 in Pittsburgh came from the right and not the left.

In movements of social change, we need to be in dialogue with those we do not agree with. Looking back, that was the failure of the Olympia Food Co-op a decade ago when they instituted their boycott of Israeli products. Not the boycott itself, but the failure to engage in the hard conversation of talking with their neighbors, understanding the spectrum of Jewish experience and opinion. Rather the leadership chose the easy path of listening to only those they agree with, and not only that, using those opinions to serve as representative of a whole (i.e., talking to some Jews, but not all Jews) thus pitting a minority community against itself.

We have the opportunity to do things differently. Our current political situation gives us the opportunity to forge new alliances and relationships, if only we embrace the discomfort. If only we show up. If only we do the work.

It is work that will continue. For we know that while it is easy to point out other’s perceived biases, it is much harder to see them in oneself. While it is easy to tell others who they can and can not associate with, we get much more resistant when the same charge is leveled at us. But we need to be both strong and humble in our convictions and identities.

I know that within the Jewish community there are those I need to be in relationship and dialogue with at times for the sake of the greater Jewish community. I will engage with Chabad even though I find their Orthodox practice and ideology, especially around gender, to be far from my own. I will dialogue with StandWithUs even though I disagree with their politics on Israel and their assault on free speech. There are times we can be in coalition, and sometimes we can’t. But we must maintain the relationship, difficult and uncomfortable as it may be at times. The same is true in interfaith work, when I work on issues with those faiths whose theologies are antithetical to mine.

I do plan to spend part of my Shabbat this weekend participating in the Women’s March in Olympia. (For those who are tracking, the Washington Women’s March organization actually broke with the national organization over some of the issues referenced and is independent.) The times demand we show up, and I’m prepared to do the difficult work that entails, and I trust my partners are willing to do the same.

And I believe that standing there at the Temple of Justice on the Capitol Campus will be the closest we can come today to being a part of the erev rav, the diverse coalition that confronted oppression and joined together in the march to liberation.

 

The Fear of Freedom

I did not write last week because I took a trip out of town for a few days to Los Angeles. What brought me to LA (though I did tag on a few days of family vacation) was a two-day immersive learning experience at Beit T’shuvah, a Jewish residential treatment center for addiction that also serves as a congregation and Jewish spiritual center. Beit T’shuvah also develops programs of prevention, and trains professionals in its approach to recovery. It was in this capacity that I was there; my rabbinic association sponsored the workshop on Jewish approaches to recovery.

During this workshop we learned from both the clinical staff and the spiritual staff; the foundation of the approach to recovery there is spirituality. Residents have spiritual counselors as well as individual therapy and group meetings, and Jewish rituals of Shabbat and study are a key part of the week.

We didn’t spend Shabbat there, although I hear it is amazing—in addition to the traditions of Shabbat it also becomes a time in which people are celebrated with cakes for their sobriety birthday. But we did participate in the morning Torah study, a daily practice in which all the residents get together in the sanctuary for a discussion of the weekly portion. I found this to be very meaningful.

The study was led by one of the chaplains, and quickly joining was the senior rabbi, Rabbi Mark Borovitz. Rabbi Borovitz’s own journey is one of addiction and recovery, and he, after his release for prison, eventually found his way to rabbinical school and whose rabbinic work is to serve those in recovery.

The study was on this week’s portion of Beshallach, the climactic moment of the Exodus story when Pharaoh has released the Israelites from slavery. The Israelites make their way out only to be pursued by Pharaoh’s army, dispatched after Pharaoh seeks to bring them back. They come to the Sea of Reeds, and when all seems lost, the sea splits and the Israelites cross through in safety as the waters come down on the pursuing army.

The portion opens with a geographic note: “Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, ‘the people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds.” It was these verses that formed the basis for the study.

These verses talk about the first steps of the Israelites into freedom. The most direct route from Egypt to Canaan would have been up the coast of the Mediterranean, which was in ancient times the land of the Philistines. But God did not want to people to be afraid and want to turn back to the life in Egypt that they knew.

In the text God was concerned that the people would be afraid of war. In Rabbi Borovitz’s interpretation, war is a metaphor for all that comes with a life that is free from slavery. God was concerned that the people would be afraid of freedom.

While slavery brought its challenges, freedom also brings its own challenges. We fear freedom, and the responsibility that comes with it, so we return to the things that are safe and give us comfort, even if they are not good for us. For the Israelites, it was Egyptian slavery. In Rabbi Borovitz’s teaching, this is the paradigm of addiction and recovery. Because we fear freedom, we retreat to those things that give us comfort, that shield us from responsibility, that are “safe.” And if we are Pharaoh’s grasp, he said, we can always blame everything on him. Ultimately, however, this is not good for us, and we need to be free.

Which is why, in the first verse, while the translation is “Pharaoh let the people go,” a more accurate translation is Pharaoh “sent the people out.” This is the meaning of the name of the parashah, Beshallach, “sent out.” That which is comfortable can also enslave us, and we will not willingly go, but we need to be sent out. We need to be free, and we need to face that very real fear of freedom.

And the road out can be long and difficult, another meaning of the reason for the long detour in the Torah. We have to be willing to take the long way at times, there are sometimes no shortcuts.

The fear of freedom is a powerful fear. It affects the Israelites, and it affects each one of us. It is something we all must face, and the strength to face it, as I learned at Beit T’shuvah, as we read in the Torah, comes from knowing that we do not need to face it alone.

I Am Your Healer

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, is famous for the Song at the Sea. The Israelites, having survived centuries of oppression, and having witnessed the plagues which struck the Egyptians around them, finally make their way to freedom. Although at first confronted by the Red Sea in front of them while the Egyptian army was in hot pursuit, Moses splits the sea in two to allow for safe passage. As the waters close behind them, they enact their first impulse of liberation: to sing.

The fact of this song makes this Shabbat a special celebration, called Shabbat Shira, the “Sabbath of Song.” Congregations around the world—including our own—will use this as a special opportunity to celebrate the place of song in Jewish tradition.

There is an interesting turn of phrase immediately following the song. Soon after, the euphoria wears off and the Israelites need something to drink. While they find bitter water, God instructs them to toss in a piece of wood, which has the effect of making the water sweet. The people are satiated.

God then reiterates the covenant, and says, “I am Adonai your healer.” (Exodus 15:26).

The “healer” language in this instance is interesting. We often invoke the idea of God as healer in our liturgy—we offer a prayer for healing every time we gather for a service. And while theologically we may struggle with a deity that both creates and removes illness, the fact of praying for healing provides a sense of strength and support for those who are ailing, and a means of demonstrating that support for those who are connected to the patient.

In this case in Exodus, God is not claiming the role of healer in response to a particular disease or ailment. As the Israelites begin their journey, and they are in need of provisions along the way, God says “I am your healer.” The implication being, moving forward, I will take care of you.

An object lesson for us. As we move forward in our journeys, we have the obligation to be the healer, the caregiver, for one another. If one is facing bitter waters, it is our obligation to throw in the block of wood to make it sweet. We may not be able to fully cure that which is troubling our neighbor, but we can do what we can to show support and ease the way.

There are times, though, that we can be true healers, one of the most important obligations we have. To participate in pikuah nefesh—saving a life—is of such paramount importance that we are allowed to override other mitzvot and sacred acts in order to carry it out. (One must eat on Yom Kippur, for example, if his or her health depends on it).

As some of you may know, one of the teens in our congregation of Temple Beth Hatfiloh was recently diagnosed with leukemia, and is currently undergoing treatment in Seattle. He is getting great medical care, and the family—temporarily relocated up north—has much support. Yet the desire to do something is so strong that we are taking action here as well. This Sunday we will be holding a bone marrow donor registry drive to increase to pool of potential bone marrow donors.

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While it is unknown at this point whether our friend will need a bone marrow transplant, by holding the registry drive we are doing two things: we are showing him our support by letting him know we are thinking of him in his recovery, and we are creating a situation in which we are increasing the possibility that one of us will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh and save a life.

[The drive, run through Gift of Life, will take place at TBH between 9:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.—before the Superbowl! Eligible donors need to be between the ages of 18 and 45 and in relatively good health. All that is required is a cheek swab! All are welcome!]

A few years ago, when another member of our congregation was fighting leukemia, we held a similar drive. I got my check swabbed then, and didn’t think much of it. A few years after, while standing in Target, I casually checked my email to find out that I was a potential match. I was excited, nervous and emboldened to recognize that I could be in the position to save a life.

A few days later a blood collection kit came in the mail, which I took to a local lab for a blood draw. It was sent off, and then nothing. I didn’t hear anything else. I guess I wasn’t enough of a match once the more extensive testing was done. I was a bit disappointed, but understood.

God tells the Israelites, “I am your healer.” We can tell our neighbors the same thing, “I am your healer.” There are many ways to do this sacred obligation of looking after and caring for our community. And one very special way starts with a cheek swab.