Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Are We There Yet? On Sea Crossing, Mountain Climbing, Departures, Arrivals, and the Space In Between

 Each year at the Passover Seder, we read these words:

“This year we are here, next year, in the land of Israel. 
 This year we are slaves, next year, free people.”[i] 

We navigate the entire Seder through this dichotomy, as if dancing back and forth between the imprisoning constriction of Mitzrayim and the boundless openness that true freedom seemingly provides.  We engage in story-telling, observe and consume edible symbols, and physically mimic different postures evoking these same themes of slavery and freedom,  disgrace and glory, degradation and praise, departure and arrival.  And ultimately, we culminate the Passover Seder with the same hopeful words every year:

           “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yirushalyim – Next year in Jerusalem!” 

Which can lead one to wonder: will we ever actually get there? To that state of shalom/peace and shaleim/wholeness that Jerusalem represents? Will we ever actually arrive at the freedom, liberation, openness, and fulfillment that is the yearning and promise of every previous Seder’s beginning and end?   What’s the point of telling the same story with the same unfinished ending over and over again if we never really get anywhere?

Because ultimately, there is only one story to tell, and it is the Truth of our lives.  How often do we find ourselves in our relationships, our work, our education, our bodies, thinking “I’ll be satisfied when:”  
*my partner understands or does what I need him/her to
*I get that next promotion or title
*I attain my degree
*I lose that last 5 pounds...
 - only to arrive at that milestone to discover another "I'll be satisfied when" destination marker somewhere yet to be attained in the future? 

An interesting insight comes from what is generally perceived as our ancestors’ culminating moment of true freedom from the grips of Egypt: the Crossing of the Sea.  In a section detailing the various occasions upon which a person should utter a blessing of gratitude, the Talmudic sages point out, “One who sees the abrot/crossings of the Sea [of Reeds]…must give thanks and praise to God.”[ii]  But what does it mean to see the abrot/ crossings of the Sea?  When exactly should one utter gratitude at such an occasion: once safely across when the miracle is complete and finish line crossed or somewhere along the way when the fullness of the miracle is not yet realized?  Nineteenth century scholar Rabbi Naftali Zvi Berlin notes Exodus 14:29, “The Israelites went on dry land into the midst of the sea.”  Picking up on the past-tense phrase “the Israelites went,” Berlin asserts what most tend to think: that it would only make sense to offer praise once completely across the parted sea, safely on the other side. We cannot, after all, offer gratitude for something that is yet to be done, can we?  But Twentieth Century commentator RabbiBaruch HaLevi Epstein, Berlin’s nephew, disagrees.  Noting Rashi’s definition of abrot/ crossings as “the place through which they traversed the sea,”[iii] Epstein asserts that our ancestors offered thanksgiving while walking the entire length of the crossing.  As Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg so masterfully surmises in her book The Particulars of Rapture: “…the Talmud is urging praise and thanksgiving while one is in the midst of the narrative.  Before the tension is resolved, before one has emerged from the undetermined, ominous passage - that is the time for gratitude and song.[iv]

I don't know from crossing the sea, but I do know that charting the course of our lives can often feel as if we are climbing a mountain, taking each step higher and higher in the hopes of one day reaching the very top.  Which is a noble goal, but that’s just not how mountain climbing works.  When climbing a large mountain, we work to ascend what seems like the tallest peak, only to arrive at that top to gaze on to the vision of a yet taller and grander peak in the distance.  And once we arrive at the tallest point, we don’t get to stay up there forever; the journey back down awaits.  Mountain ranges don’t provide one steady, evenly paced ascent or descent.  They are full of small and large elevations and depths that go on and on, from the smallest foothills to the most majestic highlands, and back down the range again. Think about where a mountain range ends?  It’s not at the height of the tallest peak.  It’s once the larger slopes merge into foothills that merge into flat ground again, back on the road, back on the journey, until arriving at the place where foothills emerge from flatland again. 

Why do we repeat the same story over and over again? Why do we never actually "get there?” Because every place we stand is “there,” if we only allow ourselves to be there.  Every place, every moment has the potential for constriction and release, for fear and hope, for degradation and praise, for brokenness and wholeness.  Our lives are not black and white; our souls are complicated amalgams of all these qualities, sometimes leaning one way, sometimes another; we live somewhere in the middle.  This is the Seder's ultimate lesson: we don’t have to wait until the height of achievement or the perfect moment to express gratitude, to change our own lives or make an impact in the world.  Every place, every moment is the perfect and best time from which to be grateful and catalyze repair.  Indeed, this year we are slaves, next year, free people.  

[i] From Ha Lachma Anya – This is the Bread of Affliction

[ii] Brachot 54a
[iii] See Rashi’s comment on the meaning of “abrot” in Brachot 54a
[iv] P. 216, see too Sforno and Nachmanides on Ex 15:1 and 15:19