Seeing & Reading the Sea of Reeds: A PEW Reflection
Sermon by Rabbi Matthew Soffer, delivered January 10, 2014 at Temple Israel of Boston
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.
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.
pushes us beyond our comfort zone, in recalling the moment in our people’s
sacred myth when we were least comfortable.
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
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.
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!”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.