Deep Ecumenism and Being a Mixed Multitude
April 14, 2017
One of the things I love about the Passover story is that every year the story is the same, and every year I hear it anew. (This is true of the whole Torah, too, but I knew and loved the Pesach story before I knew and loved the whole Torah.) Every year we retell how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. And every year, something different about the story leaps out at me and says pay attention.
This year the thing that leaps out at me is the erev rav, the "mixed multitude" that went forth with us from Egypt. When we left Mitzrayim, tradition teaches, we did not leave alone. A mixed multitude came with us. One tradition holds that some Egyptians chose to leave with us, to strike out toward freedom and self-determination. Another tradition holds that even Pharaoh's daughter came with us, and in so doing acquired a new name: Batya, "Daughter of God."
I imagine us as a vast column of refugees walking together into the wilderness... and in that great crowd of people were people who were born into this community, as well as fellow-travelers who chose to accompany us on our journey toward freedom. Together they redefined identity, so everyone became an insider, not divided by label or practice. This is the story that constitutes us as a people, the story we retell every Pesach, the story we allude to in the kiddush every Friday night and in the Mi Chamocha prayer every single day -- and in this core story, we are a mixed multitude. From the moment of our formation as a community, we are diverse.
Immediately upon leaving Egypt, we came to an insurmountable obstacle: the Sea of Reeds. On Monday night, Ben Solis-Cohen gave a beautiful d'var about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the brave soul who took the first steps into the waters. Nachshon kept going until it seemed that he would drown, and then the waters parted. This is a story about trusting in something beyond ourselves and getting through adversity we didn't think we could get through. Because in and of ourselves, we couldn't. As a theist, I would say God accompanied us, and therefore we became more than we thought we could be. That language may or may not work for you, but what matters is this: when the journey ahead seemed impossible, we found the courage to keep going, and the impossible became possible.
This is the story that constitutes us as a people, and it's not entirely an easy story. After we came through the sea, the waters rushed back in and swept away the Egyptian armies that had pursued us. Midrash teaches that God rebuked the angels for rejoicing, saying, "My children are perishing, and you sing praises?" Both "we," and "they," are equally God's children. The story that constitutes us as a people demands that we ask what price is being paid for our liberation, and by whom. Whose bondage or suffering is the price of our freedom and comfort, and what right do we have to exact that price?
It's our job as Jews to rejoice in our freedom, and it's our job to look at this system, this community, this nation, this planet, and ask how and whether we're complicit in the suffering of others who are not yet free. What is the price of our spiritual freedom, and who is paying that price, and what can we do about that? And considering our complicity isn't enough. It's also our job as Jews to work toward liberation for everyone. Until everyone is free, our liberation is incomplete.
The mixed multitude who left Egypt included people who were not Jews... as our Shabbat dinners here include those who walk on other spiritual paths. On most Christian calendars today is Good Friday. In their tradition, today commemorates the death of Jesus on the cross. In their tradition, the price of spiritual freedom for humanity was the death of the rabbi they call Jesus who was both human and divine.
For our Christian friends, tonight is a dark night that will give way on Sunday to the brightest of new dawns. The emotional journey of going from Good Friday to Easter does for them what the emotional journey of Pesach can do for us. Remembering the tenth plague, the death of the Egyptian firstborns -- remembering the Egyptian army swept away in the Sea of Reeds -- impels us to recognize the preciousness of this life, and to cultivate openness to growth and change.
Following the teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, I want to suggest that the best way we can relate to Good Friday is not by trying to be Christian, but by being all the more Jewish. This is what he called "deep ecumenism." From the authenticity of our spiritual practice, we can walk alongside others in theirs, partaking in a universal human journey that has multiple forms. And that journey would be darkened and diminished if even a single one of us didn't take part.
Every religion, Reb Zalman taught, is like an organ in the body of humanity. We need each one to be uniquely what it is, and we also need each one to be in communication with the others. If the heart tried to be the liver, we'd be in trouble, but if the heart stopped speaking to the liver, we'd be in even more trouble! Each community of faith -- including those who identify as atheist, agnostic, or secular -- needs to live up to its own best self, and each needs to be in dialogue with the others.
Humanity hasn't quite mastered this yet... but the rest of the world could learn a lot from Williams campus life. When the Chaplains' Office organizes a multifaith prayer experience after the desecration of Jewish cemeteries and Muslim mosques. When Williams Catholic, or Williams Secular, or the Feast, shows up to cook Shabbat dinner for WCJA. When Feminists of Faith gather on a Saturday afternoon, as we will do here on April 29. This is what it means to be a mixed multitude: not because we're stuck with each other, but because we embrace each other. Because our pluralism is part of who we are.
On Sunday night we'll enter into the seventh day of Pesach, which tradition says is the day when we actually crossed the sea. We'll remember how after crossing that sea, Miriam and the women danced with their timbrels, singing in gratitude to the One Who makes our transformation possible.
That's our job too: to sing out in praise. To cultivate gratitude and joy, without ignoring the things that are hard, either in our past or in our anticipated future. Miriam and the women are my role models in that. They'd experienced trauma and loss, they were on a journey with an unknown destination, they were carrying their whole lives on their backs -- and they danced anyway.
Miriam and the women teach me that no matter what I've been through and no matter what challenges lie ahead, there is always reason for hope and rejoicing. "Look around, look around: how lucky we are to be alive right now!"
This is the story that constitutes us as a people: a mixed multitude, welcoming and diverse -- growing and becoming, taking a leap of faith singly and together -- grappling with systems of oppression -- supporting each other on our various spiritual paths -- aware that transformation is always possible -- with hearts expansive enough to hold both life's adversity and life's joy.
We live into this story through every act of tikkun olam (healing the world) that we do singly and together: in our learning, in our fellowship, in our activism, in our prayer, in our community-building. Each of these is a step on the road to Sinai, a step en route to the land of promise awaiting us all.
This is the d'var Torah I offered tonight during dinner at the Williams College Jewish Association. (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)
Image: "Multitude," by Sam Miller. (Source.)