Sunday, January 29, 2012

Singing our Revolutions (Shabbat Shirah)

“Singing together helps people through very difficult times.”

Last week, I heard these words on an NPR podcast called “Singing the Revolution.” They came from Stuart Stotts, author of We Shall Overcome: A Song that Changed the World. Mr. Stotts argues that the civil rights movement might not have succeeded without the benefit of music, which fed the activists’ hearts and souls. Bernice Johnson Reagon-- daughter of a Baptist minister and founder of the a cappella group “Sweet Honey in the Rock”—agrees. She says that for the African-American demonstrators who risked their lives facing down brutal white supremacists, singing the songs of the black church conferred upon the people a collective conjured strength. The music created a kind of protective barrier between the demonstrators and the police, allowing the marchers to move beyond their fear. As Ms. Reagon describes it: “Those songs do something to the material that you’re made of. The singing connects you with a force in the universe that makes you different. You become part of a community. And then they can’t get to you.”

This week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, suggests that much the same dynamic worked for our ancestors at the shores of the Red Sea. While the text seems to point to the people singing the famous “Song at the Sea” only after they successfully passed through the waters, some of our most important commentators argue otherwise. Both Ramban and Seforno insist that the people actually sang while in the middle of the crossing, with the Egyptian army in hot pursuit. In other words, as Aviva Zornberg notes, the anxiety of the moment is the engine that drives the song: “The meeting of terror and joy, destruction and birth, takes the people beyond the normal places of speech.”

While we, thankfully, may never find ourselves pursued by either a vast army or racists bent on our destruction, we all face moments when it feels impossible to move forward, when we are paralyzed by fear. During those times, both Torah and history teach us that we may find faith and courage in music, especially when it is sung and celebrated in the company of good companions. When we know that we are not alone, when we share the blessing of song, we embolden ourselves and gird our faith to go on. This Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Shira—the Sabbath of Song. May we find the songs—and the fellow singers—that we need to face life’s challenges with courage.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Time to Compromise, and a Time to Stand Firm

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, the pitched battle between Moses (representing God) and Pharaoh intensifies. Repeatedly, Moses demands, “Let my people go!” Repeatedly, Pharaoh refuses, his hardened heart exacting a terrible toll on his entire nation as the plagues ravage Egypt.

Then, just before the eighth plague (locusts), Pharaoh tries to strike a deal: the Israelite men can leave but the women and children must stay. Moses emphatically rejects the offer: “We will go, our young and our old, our sons and our daughters.”

Commenting in his lovely book, The Bedside Torah, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson notes: “Pharaoh was speaking the normal language of politics, in which opposing camps compromise in order to reach agreement. The distinction between a good politician and a great one is the ability to know when a compromise is inappropriate. Moses was a great politician. He knew that the one area in which he could never compromise was his insistence on including all the people.”

This is an important lesson. Life without compromise is impossible. We rarely get everything that we want or think that we deserve. As the local church sign warned: “Husbands: If you’re always right, you’ll soon be left.” We make concessions all the time, in order to live with others: spouses, children, friends—and even enemies. Yet there are also times when we must stand on principle, when compromise would come at the cost of our integrity. Moses knows this. He musters the faith and courage to take a stand rather than striking a deal.

As Ecclesiastes teaches: to everything, there is a time.

A time to compromise and a time to stand our ground.

The challenge, of course, is to discern the proper time for each.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Path to Freedom--Stage by Stage

Liberation takes time.

In this week’s Torah portion, Va-era, God makes a four-fold promise to liberate the Jewish people: “I am the Eternal One, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and great portents. And I will take you to be my people; I will be your God.”

Why this seeming repetition: “free you. . . deliver you. . . redeem you. . . take you”?

Some of the classical commentators, such as Ovadiah Sforno (Italian, 1475-1550) argue that this is a kind of poetic literary device, to emphasize God’s saving power. Most, however, see significance in the details of the sequence (which provides the biblical basis for the four cups of wine or juice that we consume at the Pesach seder). Nachmanides (1194-1270) describes each aspect of the promise as a separate but essential step toward full deliverance. Liberation begins with the cessation of external oppression. Next, one must shed the “slave mentality” that can linger long after physical emancipation. The third stage of the journey to true freedom—corresponding to “I will redeem you”—entails learning new values and responses. Finally, the ultimate liberation comes with living out these values and making them our own.

When we strive to liberate ourselves (often asking God’s help) from the narrow spaces and circumstances that confine us, we, too, make the journey in stages. Sometimes getting out of a bad place is only the beginning; it can take a very long time to escape the spiritual, material, and psychological toll that our “Egypts” exact from us. Re-setting our attitudes and priorities is the work of a lifetime. But portion Va-era reassures us that we can, indeed, break through to true freedom if we nurture the faith and patience to proceed stage by stage.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Long and Winding Road (Portion Shemot)

Change is hard.

This week’s Torah portion, Shemot—which opens the book of Exodus—is a case study in the challenge of change. Moses and Aaron set out, with high hopes, to liberate the Israelites from Egyptian bondage. They confront Pharaoh with their insistent demand: “Let my people go!” Alas, Pharaoh’s response only makes things worse for the beleaguered Israelites. He deems them shirkers and doubles their already-crushing workload. The people take their anger and suffering out on their erstwhile liberators, saying to Moses and Aaron: “May God look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers.” Moses, in turn, directs his frustration toward the God who sent him on this thankless mission: “Eternal One, why did you bring harm upon this people? Why did you send me?”

How does the promise of deliverance so quickly devolve into a toxic cycle of name-calling and recrimination? Perhaps, as Rabbi Harold Kushner suggests, Moses’ bitter disappointment stems from unrealistic expectations of swift success. Since he, himself, is unprepared for the prolonged struggle that ensues, Moses fails to prepare the people that he is called to lead.

This encounter conveys a hard truth: when we seek positive change, things often get worse before they get better. As Rabbi Nachman of Breslov teaches, “All ascent requires descent.” What appears to be the nadir of our bondage is, in fact, the beginning of our redemption—but it is much easier to see this with the benefit of hindsight. So, too, in our own lives: genuine transformation is neither quick nor easy. We often experience dramatic downturns just before the dawning of a new and better reality.

In these situations, we need patience. It helps if we have friends and family who can coach and encourage us through the darkness that frequently accompanies the beginning of the transformation process. Realistic expectations help, too. We should expect to struggle—even as we nurture the optimism and faith that will bring us out the other end as better, freer, and wiser people.

The roads out of each of our “Egypts”—the narrow places that confine us in our own lives—pass through some deep, dark valleys.

There are no shortcuts to the Promised Land.