I began thinking about Shabbat Shira and what tone I wanted the music to take, and what I wanted to say, shortly after Hurricane Sandy. While Sandy may not be a constant thought in our minds today, I do still hear people speaking about it. Last week I heard congregants asking each other about their hopes for beach plans for the summer – is the beach they usually go to intact? Have they started rebuilding the boardwalk there? Is there beach between the water and the boardwalk position? And, on the radio just the other day I heard about people in the Rockaways still without heat battling these bitter cold days. I cannot imagine still being without heat. I also cannot imagine staying in my home if it was without heat, but perhaps this is just a failure of my imagination.
Shabbat Shira: January 25, 2013
As I began conceiving of this Torah portion I could, for the first time, imagine living it. I took the images from TV of the damage the water of Sandy caused. I took the images of people describing how they rescued their neighbors by tying ropes to their stairwells and across the street. How they tied their children to the ropes so they wouldn’t lose them, even if they lost hold of a hand. I put these harrowing images into my vision of the Israelites fleeing Egypt, of them crossing the sea and finally of the destruction of the Egyptian army by the seas return. I could now envision the awe, and horror and miracle. In New Jersey we see, where once there were restaurants and homes and even a roller coaster, now there is water. Or now there is the sand and boats and debris left behind from the waters’ path. I KNEW water was powerful, a force to be reckoned with. I knew it, but now I feel I KNOW it in a more concrete way.
I can now picture the fear of walking along the sea bottom with walls of water on either side – will they stay there or crash in upon me? I can see the destruction of the Egyptian army as the water did crash back to its spot and I can understand God’s anger at the Israelites celebrating their freedom as the Egyptians are drowning. The water was the hand of God, but the indiscriminate nature of its destruction can still make God weep.
But we have the benefit of hindsight. We know the Israelites survive and the Egyptians drown; we know God proved true. But, what must it have been like to enter the Red Sea? Our Midrash asks this question. There are of course many different answers for how the sea was split, and what it took for God to perform this miracle but the one we look at tonight is the story of Nachshon ben Aminadav. According to Midrash while the Israelites were debating running into the water or returning to the slavery they already knew, Nachshon just walked into the water. And he kept walking until the water was nearly above his head, until he would have drowned. At this act of faith, we are told God rescues Nachshon and the whole Israelite people by opening the Red Sea for them to walk across on dry land.
Was it faith? Was it suicide? What truly allowed Nachshon to be our hero? And what might we do in his position? We all heard the harrowing stories of people during Hurricane Sandy, people saving their neighbors as the water level rose, people who went back across the flooded streets again and again to save more people. We know that in human nature is the ability to risk ones own life to save another and I believe it must be in part faith that it will work; faith that you won’t die saving another; faith that God will protect you while your mission is so altruistic. So I wonder is this what Nachshon thought? God brought us here so God will save us by walking through this water? Or did he do it without thinking just knowing turning around was not an option.
So we are here today celebrating this miracle of our escape from slavery, celebrating Nachshon’s bravery and faith, celebrating God’s action in the world. And I wonder how do we face our faith in times of great challenge? Faith is a difficult thing – for to hold it we take a leap – and faith is more easily had if we have cultivated relationship with God to begin with. If we never show our gratitude to God, if we never turn to God with questions, or praise or thoughts, I believe faith in a time of challenge would be nearly impossible. But even for those of us who pray regularly, even for those who feel genuine gratitude towards God, even for those who have cultivated a relationship, faith is not always a guarantee and acting out of faith is most definitely not a surety. So I think sometimes you have to take the leap and hope you are right. With my students I often call it “fake it til you make it;” I don’t want them to be fake, but I want them to act and behave with confidence until they are truly confident. Surely, confidently reading Hebrew and leading worship is not the SAME as walking into the Red Sea, but it surely is a great challenge and having faith that they have the tools to succeed is one of the goals in teaching B’nai Mitzvah. I think the principle applies in life, you may not truly believe God can or will help you in your time of need, but I believe if you act as though you believe it will be helpful.
As I underwent treatment for infertility I did not have confidence I would succeed in creating my family. I did not have confidence God would help me, for I know there are many who do not have success, and I could not be so special that God would help me and not them. But still I prayed. I prayed God would help the doctors. I prayed God would help me and I prayed God would help me find my way in life regardless of the outcome. I did not have perfect faith, but I acted with perfect faith and I found comfort in that, and of course I have been blessed with two wonderful girls who are about to celebrate their 2nd birthday.
I recently received and email from my aunt with her New Year’s update. She has metastatic breast cancer and will be on chemotherapy for the rest of her life. She wrote: “Jan. 10th, 2013 is my 13th year Canciversary from my original diagnosis. End of Jan. 2013 is my 6th Canciversary since my cancer metastasized. LIFE IS GOOD!!” At first this statement just made me want to cry. My aunt has a 17 year-old daughter, and these numbers mean her mom has had cancer almost her whole life and has been living with metastatic cancer her entire teenage life. But then I reread it, and I reread the double exclamation points and I reread the all capital ‘LIFE IS GOOD!!’ and I see what my aunt must have discovered on this journey – she has outlived most people with the same type of cancer, she has outlived most people with the same type of metastasies. She is still living on chemotherapy and her side effects are currently livable. Since her diagnosis she has become bat Mitzvah and found her life partner and she is living to see her daughter become an adult – something which, at her first diagnosis with a 4 year old, she may never have thought possible. For her life is GOOD. For her, walking into the water with faith that God will see her through on dry land has been her everyday journey for 13 years. This is not a journey we would choose for ourselves but I am so proud of my aunt for how she has faced it, and I am so grateful for her lesson to me.
Whatever your journey, whatever your space between the sea of reeds and the Egyptian army may be, I hope you can face it with God, I hope you can find the faith, or fake it until you find it, to be like Nachshon and walk in until God answers, saving the whole Israelite people.