A Song For Those Coming Through the Sea: Beshalach 5783 / 2022
February 04, 2023
The Song at the Sea is one of the oldest poems in Torah, and its beauty in the scroll is like nothing else. Some see brickwork, an echo of the labors of slavery. Some see waves rolling in and receding, a reminder of how the sea parted and then rushed back in. The waves, in turn, evoke the midrash about Nachshon ben Aminadav who bravely stepped into the waters and began walking forward. When the waves reached his lips, that’s when the waters parted. This is a story about taking a risk and making a leap of faith toward a better life.
Every displaced person, asylum-seeker, and refugee could tell us that story. Emerging from circumstances most of us can scarcely imagine, they step into the waters. The act of fleeing home speaks of a situation so dire that staying put is no longer a viable option. In the words of poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.” No one flees unless home is a Narrow Place so tight and terrible that fleeing becomes the best choice.
One of my favorite teachings about crossing the Sea comes from Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezofsky, also known as the Slonimer Rebbe. He writes that there are three levels of emunah, "faith" or "trust": the emunah of the heart, the emunah of the mind, and the emunah of the body, and the highest of these is the emunah of the body. That surprised me; I expected mind to be considered “higher.” Nope. He says when we feel emunah in our bodies, then the divine presence dwells in us, and that is when we become able to sing the Song at the Sea.
The Slonimer knows that taking a leap of faith changes us. Inertia would be easier. Giving up would be easier. Leaping into the unknown asks just enough bravery to take the first step. In the act of stepping into the sea comes transformation: the capacity to sing a new song. The Slonimer says that when we take the leap of emunah and walk into the water, Shechinah dwells in us – God’s presence is in us, in our very bones. And that’s what enables us to sing a song of redemption, a song of hope for something better than whatever we knew before.
Our ancient spiritual ancestors couldn’t sing the Song until they felt emunah in their bones. And they couldn’t feel emunah in their bones until they stepped into the sea. Which means they had to step into the sea before they felt ready. They had to take the plunge without knowing for sure what lay ahead and whether or not the water would part. On a smaller scale, we all have moments like that, on the cusp of change: marriage or divorce, birth or death, choosing a new beginning. There’s a moment when we have to decide to just – step into the sea, ready or not.
In 1939 my grandparents fled Hitler with my three year old mother in tow. I imagine it was the hardest thing they had ever done. When they arrived on these shores, other Jews from Eastern Europe took care of them: helped them find a place to stay, a way to learn English, the help they needed until they could get on their feet. That’s a kind of kindness that can’t be paid back, only paid forward. Even if they repaid every penny (and maybe they did), the repayment couldn’t mean as much to the givers as being welcomed had meant when my family needed it.
How do we pay it forward? To me the answer is painfully obvious: we pay it forward by welcoming the stranger. We pay it forward by meeting the needs of of the displaced person, the asylum-seeker, the refugee. Every Shabbat (or every day) we sing Mi Chamocha, our song of redemption. We need to let that song galvanize us to fuel the song of justice. The song of human dignity. The song of welcome. The song of “Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” The song of “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Each year at Pesach we recount how we fled Egypt after ten terrible plagues with only what we could carry. We eat matzah: the hardtack of slavery, and the waybread of our journey to freedom. For us, that story is symbolic, a metaphor for breaking free from life’s tight places. For displaced people and asylum-seekers and refugees, the Exodus is now. We know the heart of the refugee because our ancestral story – the one we tell at seder, the ritual practiced by 70% of American Jews – is a story of becoming refugees. Our obligations to today’s refugees are clear.
When we fled the Narrow Place, a “mixed multitude” came also, to teach that freedom isn’t just for us. Dignity, justice, and safety aren’t just for us. They are the birthright of every human being. Including asylum-seekers camped at the borders of our nation, and refugees fleeing war and devastation, and parents and children fleeing gender-based violence. During the Shoah, the United States shamefully refused entry to refugees and asylum-seekers – many were then slaughtered. We owe it to their memories to do better now by people in need of safe haven.
It takes profound emunah to step into the sea not knowing if the waters will part. (Or into a rickety boat, or the back of a pickup truck, or trudging on foot…) In our ancestral story, stepping into the Sea opens us to an experience of God that begins to change us from freed slaves into the Jewish people. For 100 million displaced people in the world today, stepping into the Sea is just… reality. Jewish values call us to welcome them with sustenance, and clothing, and homes, and safety, and justice, and dignity, and hope. That’s the song that I think is worth singing.
This is the d'varling that I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires this Shabbat (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)