Friday, January 10, 2014

Seeing & Reading the Sea of Reeds: A PEW Reflection

Sermon by Rabbi Matthew Soffer, delivered January 10, 2014 at Temple Israel of Boston

We have arrived at the Sea of Reeds.  Every year we read this multiple times.  Most obviously we encounter this text during Passover, when we not only read the story but also digest its key elements literally.  And we read it now, this week, in Parashat Beshalach. 

When we read text in Judaism we don’t read for simplicity, for summaries of events that occurred.  Nor do we read for comfort, at least not when we engage in the study of Torah.  When we read we read for complexity; for irony; for contradictions.  We read to challenge ourselves.  Which is why this Torah portion so exceptional.

It pushes us beyond our comfort zone, in recalling the moment in our people’s sacred myth when we were least comfortable.

You might say, “wait a minute, how could we possibly regard this moment as less comfortable than the enslavement that they were fleeing!”  But in our text we hear the Israelites counter to Moses, as Pharaoh and his troops were chasing the Israelites:

“They said to Moses, ‘Was it because there weren’t enough graves in Egypt that you brought us here to die in the wilderness?  What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt?... It would be better for us to be slaves to the Egyptians than die here!’”

We the Jewish people inherit the whole narrative of Exodus, with all of its peaks and valleys.  The pretty part of it all is fun to tell as we recline comfortably around the Passover table—the glorious edible journey from slavery to freedom to revelation to eventual homecoming.  But the ugly parts, like this fatalistic kvetch we too inherit.

We the Jewish people are conditioned to read our lives into the story and this story into our lives: It’s a part of our DNA.  And this moment, when the Israelites stand there in between the Egyptians and the frightening apparent dead-end of the Reed Sea, this situation is still a part of the people Israel’s self-conception. “It’d be better for us to be slaves to the Egyptians than die here!” 

This pinnacle of discomfort has only been reinforced by the lessons of our history of tumult, afflicted and inflicted by the other as well as the self.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons why our community today is so invested in studying itself.  Jewish demography is a field that has grown tremendously over the last 3 decades.  We are obsessively assessing our state in the world, sensing the threats all around us.

By now you’ve probably heard about the most recent PEW study on the Jewish community released just a few months ago.  It’s a fascinating snapshot of the American Jewish community.  Frankly, there’s not much reason for Jewish leadership to be comfortable right now.  

More than one in five American Jews now describe him or herself has having “no religion,” and among the youngest generation of adults that figure is about 1 in 3. These numbers accord with PEW data trends broadly across religion in America. Interestingly 45% of Americans who identify as having no religion (the so-called “nones”) actually do say they believe in God.  Which suggests that the problem is in the institutions, the actual organized religious community.

And this is perhaps most relevant for us, as a community of individuals who choose to enter this space to enliven Judaism. Now of course we know that Temple Israel itself has some radical approaches in comparison to the average synagogue—they way we organize for justice, engage people who are otherwise Jewishly bored—we’ve long been “renovators” of Jewish life. But this doesn’t make us immune to the macro-trends that the PEW is showing. In fact, we change because we listen to them.

The overall number of people who identify as “belonging to a synagogue” is declining.  My/our generation in particular doesn’t hold the same connection to the concept of membership as our parents and grandparents, and the problem isn’t just about the millennials.  The overall percentage of those who invest in the synagogue to advance their identity is shrinking. 

Why this matters is not only existential—Judaism doesn’t exist for the sake of existence. As Hillel said “uch’she-ani laatzmi mah ani—if I exist for my own sake, what am I?”
A Judaism that exists entirely for itself is nothing more than narcissism.  Engaging in self-demographics can always runs the risk of narcissism, of obsessing over oneself eternally.  

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a hunter from Thespiae who was obsessed with his own image and his own stories.  His nemesis, who name was….Nemesis… Nemesis attracted him to stare a pool, where he looked upon the body of water and saw his reflection.  He fell in love with it, and he stared at it for the rest of his life. Some say he tried to kiss it, leading to his own death.

The great Jewish demographers, whether it’s Steven Cohen, Leonard Saxe, or the PEW’s experts, they too take us to a body of water.  But it’s not the pond of Narcissus, it’s the Sea of Reeds. Like the Israelites, we don’t know what the future holds, and there’s no shortage of fatalist readers of our story. 

In the story of the Sea of Reeds, we know what happens, there are a number of versions of the tale.  The Reed Sea parts, forming two walls.  The Israelites pass through the two halves of the sea.  The walls then cave in, crushing the enemies of Israel.  Israel rejoices.

The Parting Sea is the critical moment in the journey toward the Covenant with God at Sinai.  And not only because of its role in the plot, but also because of its allusive significance, the symbolism of the parting sea.  This is not the first time that parting plays a part of the story. 

The Torah, our sacred story, has been parting since the creation of the world.  When God creates in Genesis, it is through making divisions that the world comes into being.  It’s not by chance that the very concept of Covenant involves splitting.

The Hebrew verb associated with the making of a covenant is karet (b’rit), to “cut a Covenant” – for the ancients, of course, it pertained to the Ancient Near Eastern custom of cutting an animal in half and offering it to the gods.  This was how two or more parties made peace; this was how they affirmed an agreement and made it holy.  In fact, this is the origin of the term “cutting a deal.”  The ancient Israelites imported this concept of cutting in half, parting to symbolize any time that God and human beings established a new and refreshing vision for the future.  Covenant—the idea that we are in this together and that we can make a future together that defies the reality on the ground: that’s the lesson of the Parting Reed Sea. 

Covenant has always been and still is the “value proposition” of the Jewish enterprise.  And by the way, yes we have to be clear about our value proposition.  Because what the PEW study makes clear, what we all know: Today, we live in a spiritual marketplace. It wasn’t always this way throughout Jewish history, but it is now. We live in a spiritual marketplace, and it is essential that we understand our value proposition—that is, what is indispensible and exceptional about this thing we call Judaism. 
What’s still worth enlivening, sustaining, and guarding?  It’s the courage to be in Covenant, in a holy relationship with each other and with God (however you define the Sacred).

Getting your religion on, whether you call it spirituality, justice, culture, or free food, is now – like it or not – counter-cultural.  Stepping foot inside this community means being a part of a counter-culture. 

But that’s nothing new. How do you know a fish is alive, asks the old Yiddish Proverb.  You know it’s alive if it swims upstream. Covenant, this thing we call Judaism, has always been challenging and uncomfortable.   We’ve been swimming this way for thousands of years, and we’ll continue swimming this way for as long as we have the courage to be in Covenant. This is the way we read and see the Sea of Reeds.

Shabbat Shalom.