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Rabbi's Shabbat Message

Chag sameach! 

I hope your Passover celebrations have been uplifting and rejuvenating this week. I’ve loved getting to see so many of you in person at our courtyard seders this week which went on valiantly, undeterred by the threat of rain and wind!

As Gail mentioned in her letter earlier this week, we are eagerly preparing to invite you to be able to sign up to attend services in limited numbers in person, beginning the weekend of April 16-17, and you’ll see more information coming out about that, as well as all of the programs we’ll be offering for Yom HaShoah, Yom HaZikaron, and Yom HaAtzma’ut early next week. 

This Shabbat, I’m excited to welcome back Rabbi Dr. Karen Reiss Medwed, who will be giving a drasha tonight at services connected to themes of Yizkor, grief, and memory, both personal and collective (we’ll be saying Yizkor during Shabbat/Yom Tov services tomorrow morning). Karen and her family were longtime beloved members of Or Hadash, and she and I passed each other like ships in the night - the Medweds moved to Long Island just before Joel and I arrived here in Atlanta. I’m so grateful that she’s agreed to share her soulful wisdom with us tonight. And check out this melody for Dodi Li that we’ll be singing tonight (fingers crossed...hopefully I can convince Joel to do it with me! If not, just enjoy listening ;)

We’ve also recorded a guided walking meditation inspired by the Song of Songs for you to use on your own time, out on a trail or in your garden or even just near a window in your house (Apple podcast link).

Tomorrow morning, Aaron Stambler will be chanting a chapter from Shir haShirim, the Song of Songs (thanks, Aaron!). We’ll also be singing Hallel and chanting the Song at the Sea for the 7th day of Pesach, traditionally when the Israelites crossed through the sea. 

In honor of that, I wanted to share with you a d’var Torah that I wrote a few years ago for the 7th day of Pesach, called “Living at the Frontier,” which brings together the challenges of transition and grief that are so live for so many of us right now. I’m wrestling with it right there along with you. 

With love,
Rabbi Lauren

“I began to realize that the only place where things were actually real was at this frontier between what you think is you and what you think is not you. . . But it’s astonishing how much time human beings spend away from that frontier, abstracting themselves out of their bodies, out of their direct experience, and out of a deeper, broader, wider possible future that’s waiting for them, if they hold the conversation at that frontier level.”
     —David Whyte, speaking with Krista Tippett, “The Conversational Nature of Reality,” On Being, April 6, 2016

On the seventh day of Passover (Shevi’i shel Pesah), we reached the frontier of our existence: Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds. We had known slavery intimately, becoming deeply comfortable in Egypt even as we clamored to leave. And after all the plagues and darkness and death, we arrived, trembling, at the water’s edge, about to surface and breathe the unfamiliar air of freedom for the first time.

Many people who have imagined the crossing of the sea, myself included, have pictured the sea splitting and the Israelites walking together down a pathway that moments before had been underwater—a yellow brick road, of sorts, from Mitzrayim to the Promised Land:

And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea upon the dry ground; and the waters were a wall to them on their right hand, and on their left. (Exodus 14:22)

This image suggests that once God split the sea, the rest of the journey across was simple—dry, paved, neat, and requiring nothing from the Israelites themselves. Apart from the midrash about Nahshon’s bold entry into the waters before they parted (BT Sotah 37a), was it really that simple for each individual Jew to make that crossing? Was it really so easy to leave the pain behind and cross to the other side of the sea, and then immediately burst into song?

Before this moment, when the Israelites were still stuck on the near side of the sea, their pain was visceral. They feared that they would be trapped and enclosed in the wilderness (nivukhim hem ba’aretz [Exod. 14:3]), and Moses and the Israelites cried out in confusion, fear, and panic. Rashi  proposes that the word nivukhim here, translated as “entangled” or “perplexed,” is connected (by shared root letters bet and khaf) to words for streams of tears, as in be’emek habakha (“the valley of tears”) from Psalms, which we know better from “Lekha Dodi.”

The Israelites approached the Sea with salty tears streaming down their cheeks, and so maybe these tears were the very keys to the splitting of the sea. Perhaps it was the tears of the Israelites that unlocked the salt water of the sea, allowing it to part, opening the channel for seeing the blessing in pain and the fierce hope that can emerge from deep sadness.

Because, maybe, crossing the sea wasn’t quite like walking down a pathway from one place to another. Maybe it was more like what’s happening in every moment in our bodies on the cellular level, as molecules and chemicals pass through the receptors in a cell membrane. If you remember back to your high school biology class, in order for a particular protein to enter into a cell, it has to have the right shape to fit into a receptor located on the surface of the cell membrane itself. Like a key into a lock, it can cross through the door and enter only if it is the right shape and size. Without the tears, Moshe’s staff could not split the sea, and even God’s power could not make the waters part. Perhaps those tears shed on the bank of the sea were the key that unlocked the power that made splitting the salty water possible.

Kriat yam suf, the splitting of the sea and crossing through to the other side, is happening at every moment as we witness miracles at the molecular level, on the surface of our own skin. It is not far away in the past, or up in the heavens. Living at the frontier of one’s existence is the receptivity to the immediacy of now, the pain and the tears of right now, the joy of now, holding the keys to unlock, transform, and open the gate to whatever is to come next.

Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. One who goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come back with shouts of joy, bringing sheaves with them. (Psalm 126:5–6)

Wed, April 21 2021 9 Iyyar 5781