Beshalach: Resisting Redemption
The other night I was speaking at a Teach-in for a progressive Zionist organization called Zioness. (Full disclosure, I am a founding board member). I had the honor to sit next to Emiliana Guereca, Founder and Executive Director of Women’s March Los Angeles and a dynamic speaker. Towards the end of the evening, a young participant asked us,
“What is the use of protesting? I mean, it’s a lot of work to get downtown with all those people. What does it get us anyway, how much has really changed?” Both Emiliana and I tried to explain that protests are the first card you can play in the game of community betterment. Protests help us to feel less lonely and more affirmed in our identities and points-of-view. In a democracy protests also give a collective voice to those who normally have none – namely the poor and the vulnerable. Most importantly, protests are just the beginning. They are meant to open conversation with the hopes that real change can then be made.
Lurking behind the young women’s questions, however, was something else that I’ve been thinking about. In her question there was a sense of foreboding about how hard it is to stand up for something. It takes real work, especially when you don’t know exactly what is on the other side of that work, to change the world. Success is never assured let alone defined for those who are on the path to redemption.
It is natural to feel this way when it seems the whole world is aligned against you. In this week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, the Israelites find themselves at the edge of redemption, and yet they still resist. After seeing ten plagues and the utter destruction of Egypt, the Israelites are on their way to the Land of Israel only to find themselves blocked in at the narrows between the sea and the impending Egyptian army that has taken up pursuit.
The Torah captures the fear that gripped the hearts of Israel as they stood there with redemption at hand. “Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve them than die in wilderness.” (Ex. 14:12).
The midrash tells an extraordinary story of just how much the people of Israel resisted redemption:
Moses lifts his staff and made the waters split yet the nation did not move forward. “Arise and go!” Moses exclaims, but the people said, “We shall not go until the sea is torn asunder.” So Moses pushes the waters back further and says, “Arise and go!” But again, the people said, “We shall not go across until it is turned into dry land.” So Moses raises his staff and fire comes to lap up the remaining puddles. “Arise and go!” Moses shouts, yet the Israelites continue to resist. “We will not go across until you provide fresh water and provisions for us while we cross.” So Moses raises his staff another time and fresh water flowed from the sea, and provisions sprang from the ground along the way to feed the Israelites. “Now Arise and Go!” He says again, but again the Israelites refuse to move. “We will not go across until you give us God’s Clouds of Glory to protect us from the harsh sun.” So Moses raised his staff again and clouds covered the camp. Yet they still resisted. (Avot D’Rebbe Nathan Ch. 35)
Redemption is hard work. It’s natural to resist change. As someone who has worked with many vulnerable people who have decide to take a stand for the first time, I’ve seen how hard it can be. Like the homeless man across the street from my synagogue who refuses to go into shelter. Like the woman who is beaten by her husband but does not leave him. Or even the employee who is stuck in a job they do not want, but never applies for another position. Resistance to redemption is real. In the midrash Moses did everything he could to make the journey easier from making the path wide and dry to providing food and cover, but ultimately none of this works. Making it easier for someone for someone to redeem themselves is only the first step. As a professional organizer and rabbi, I can help create the environment where redemption emerges, but it is up to those who want to change to step into the light. We can create protests, sing songs and shout “Fired Up,” but until we all do the hard everyday work of checking oppression, being in uncomfortable places, and pushing through our own resistance, redemption will always be just over the horizon.
Moses knows this. He says, “Have no fear, stand up and and see the redemption of the LORD!” (Ex. 14:13). The prophet knows what is in the heart of those who resist. It is fear. It is the fear of the unknown – fear of changing oneself, It is the fear of moving forward. The godliness of redemption begins the expulsion of fear. When you stop being afraid of something, you can face it clear-eyed and ready for the next step step. At every moment of redemption there are moments of fear, but with God’s help we can stand up and face them for in doing that we have already changed ourselves.
It’s lonely fighting for change by myself but these past 2 years I’ve found a community of other activists to work with. What my team doesn’t know is that 10 years ago a rabbi, you, gave me a couple of books on community organizing. It took many years of wandering in my own desert but I think of your teachings more often than you realize. Thank you, Rabbi.
You have always been a wonderful partner. Thank you for all your support!