Scootching Toward Redemption: Parashat B'shalach 5774/2015

Delivered at Nehar Shalom Community Synagogue

This week we have arrived at the central moment of our mythic memory, parashat b'shalach, also known as Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat when we sing the Song of the Sea, and cross into the wilderness to freedom and to peoplehood.  Our collective memory of the crossing is euphoric, shocking in its grandeur.  It is the stuff of majesty, magic, and myth.  It becomes metaphor for other peoples' freedom fights.  It becomes a central piece of our liturgy and year cycle.

Yet this year, it is not the grand crossing that calls my heart to listen.  It is the moment right before.

We read in Shemot Chapter 14 of the Israelites on the shore of the sea.  Read Exodus 14:10-12.  

At the threshold of this miracle, at the moment of opening, we might expect the people to be waiting in eager anticipation of their great collective transformation.  After all, they have witnessed the plagues, they have seen all the evidence that the power in this story is on the side of their liberation.  Yet when they find themselves against the sea, they cry out in terror.  They lash out, furious, terrified, and sarcastic.

We often skip over this part of the story.  We rush to the great redemption in the sea itself.  But in his book Be Still and Get Going, Rabbi Allan Lew z''l, focuses on exactly this moment.   He lifts up five verbs from Moses' and God's instructions to the Israelites and reads them as a recipe for moving through fear:

al tira'u 1) don't fear - Rabbi Lew reads this not as an injunction against feeling afraid, but that we can stop running away from our fear, and when we do this, our fear loses its power over us.

hityatzvu 2) stand up - we can stand still, we can find ourselves in the midst of the fear, we collect ourselves.

ur'u 3) see - we can see, really see the situation we are in.  We can let go of our fear-induced perceptions and imaginings.

tacharishun 4) stop talking, be quiet- we can come to stillness, a place of calm and openness within us.

And then the last step, v'yisau 5) get going - we can move forward, we can do the next thing the moment requires of us, listening to the inner wisdom that comes from the previous steps.

The magnificent human work of overcoming fear - which at its core is our fear of death - is the work of moving forward in our lives and in our growth.  It is not a majestic walk through walls of water. It is a disciplined process.  It requires us to wake up again and again to our deepest fears and to actually feel them - not hate them or reject them, but feel them in our bodies in order to come out from under their power, to clearly see what is going on, come to a stillness within ourselves, and then move.

And even then, this progress is not linear.  

One of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott, tells a story of when her son Sam was young and learning to sleep in his own room in a new house.  He started by laying his sleeping bag on the floor next to her bed, and then every night scooches forward to get a few feet further toward his own room.  

Like Sam, the Israelites will continue to feel fear. Over and over again in the wilderness they will complain to Moshe.  The fears and resistance they felt on the shore of the sea were not quenched by the miracle.  They are part of the journey itself.

We want great liberation, and we want it now. We want freedom from our mishegas, from our unhelpful habits, from our neurosis, our own sick minds.  We want trumpets and the march across the sea.  We want great catharsis and permanent transformation today

At least, I know I do. 

The second I become aware of something I want to change about myself or the outside world, I want it done.  It reminds me of the old Ten Commandments film when the Pharaoh has this repeating line: "So let it be written, so let it be done."   Immediate execution of a command is Pharaoh modality. But it is not our path. My partner always reminds me what he learned from his massage teacher: Awareness, Acceptance, Change.  In that order.  No shortcuts.

Israelite modality, the mode of living that is awake and vulnerable and moving and wrestling, is like Sam Lamott on the floor, in the dark, with his sleeping bag and his mom in the next room. We feel our fear. Scootch scootch. We inch into the darkness of the hallway. We scootch forward and back and a little more forward.  Sam's hallway is the narrow birth canal of each moment, it is the narrow hallway of the Sea of Reeds.  We will make it to the other side and we will still be scootching. This is the path toward awakening, towards redemption.