Watershed Moments: a sermon in two voices
Rabbis Hirsch and Gordon delivered this sermon together, each reflecting on the meaning of the Song of the Sea.
Rabbi Neil Hirsch —
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, economic and political pressures, coupled with famine in Ethiopia drove many there to migrate into neighboring Sudan. Many of those refugees were Ethiopian Jews. Thousands found themselves living in refugee camps without knowing what was next.
In 1979, the State of Israel began to evacuate many of these Ethiopian Jews, having them make aliyah, absorbing them into Israeli society. Conditions in Ethiopia and in the Sudanese refugee camps continued to deteriorate, and so in 1984, the Israeli government launched a covert mission known as Operation Moses. Thirty-some-odd Boeing 707s were flown in, and some eight-thousand Ethiopian Jews were airlifted to Israel. The airlines removed the seats from the planes to maximize the number of people they could bring on a single flight. Shimon Peres, who was prime minister at the time, said, “We shall not rest until all our brothers and sisters from Ethiopia come home safely.” In 1991, when civil war and famine reached another tipping point, Israel conducted more airlift mis- sions, this time bringing 14,000 Ethiopian Jews into the Jewish State.
In an 1985 essay entitled Interrupted Exodus, the journalist William Safire wrote, “For the first time in history, thousands of black people are being brought into a country not in chains but as citizens.” Operation Moses was a watershed moment. It was the Exodus re-enacted. It was redemption, again.
We are invited into constant reminders that redemption can be real. In our daily liturgy we read, “Out of Egypt (out of the narrow places) You delivered us, Eternal God; You freed us from the house of bondage.” Then we sing “Mi Khamokha, Who is like you, Adonai, among all that is worshiped? Who is like You, glorious in holi- ness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?”
We do not always emphasize the context of this prayer. When we sing Mi Khamokha, we sing as Moses, Miriam, and all of Israel did, standing on the shores of the sea. We liturgically reenact our communal redemption from Egypt every time we gather for worship. In so doing, we fulfill our obligation—as we learn from the ancient rabbis and as we recite at our Passover seder—to see our- selves as if we, each of us personally, were redeemed from Egypt.
Remembering historical moments of redemption and justice remind us that full freedom is not yet realized. We need reminders such as these. We need Operation Moses to remind us that we as Jews have experienced trials, and that we have found a communal strength to do the right thing. Thinking back on the week, celebrations on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday counter the racism, bigotry, and hatred that remains. We need to sing Mi Khamokha every time we gather for prayer, because we need remind ourselves of the imperfection in our world. Mitzrayim, Egypt, still exists. Some suffer personal bondage: struggles with addiction, depression, or anxiety, for example. For others, we see evidence of communal injustice: Furgeson, Staten Island, Baltimore, and Chicago are Egypt yet again. They read like a yartzeit list. Add to the list the Syrian refugee crisis. Injustice challenges us to believe that redemption is possible. Still, the yearning is real; we long for a watershed moment yet again. The prophet Amos declared, “Let justice well up like water, righteousness like a mighty stream!”
We want that water to flow. We desire to see the seas part for ourselves. Op- eration Moses gave us that. Other historical moments communicate the same message: redemption is possible. Current events anger us. But history teaches us to both pray and to act. We sing Mi Khamokah in our liturgy, and each year on this Shabbat, we sing the entirety of Shirat HaYam, the Song of the Sea, because we need to be reminded that we are God’s partners in bringing redemption.
When Moses, Miriam, and Israel sang their song, they said, “Ozi v’zimrat ya, va-y’hi li lishua, God is my strength and might, God has become my deliverance.” When we strive for justice, when we march one step closer to finding redemp- tion again, when we make sure that our world is a touch more whole than it was the day before, we tap into that Eternal strength, we re-enact that watershed mo- ment, standing by the sea, we have been redeemed from Egypt, yet again.
Rabbi Jodie Gordon —
I’ve never really been the mantra-type of person. On the occasions that I’ve made it to a yoga class, it’s always the “Om”ing that loses me. I’m not particularly good at meditating, though if I’m honest, that’s because I’ve never tried very hard.
And so when my spiritual director, a rabbi with whom I worked closely during rabbinic school, suggested that what I really needed, was a spiritual mantra, at first–I was at a loss.
“A spiritual mantra?” I asked.
“Yes. A core text. A word, a phrase–something that speaks to your heart, quieting your mind and healing your spirit” she replied.
The suggestion came at a time, when I was standing at the edge of the sea, so to speak. A spiritual watershed moment in my own life. But unlike Moses and Miriam, my voice was not lifted up in joyous song.
For me, the imagery of standing at the edge of a sea is so rich: at once a physical and spiritual state of being.
A memory: Growing up, I lived about 15 minutes from the beach. A straight shot down Long Beach Road. brought us to the shore of the Atlantic Ocean, where my grandparents had an apartment. I spent a good deal of my childhood running up and down that beach- my grandpa Lou chasing me with pails of water, digging holes in the sand with my little brother, and sitting under a beach umbrella with my grandma Ruth, eating cheese sandwiches and pickles.
I don’t remember how old I was, but old enough to remember the time my grandma, almost absentmindedly, told me that this was the beach where her father had died.
“Oh, it was terrible,” she said. “He was such a strong swimmer.”
I was shocked. “So, he drowned?” I asked.
“No…” she trailed off. Maybe she told me it was a heart attack? To be honest—I don’t know if she told me what really happened, or if I have rewritten this childhood memory in my head.
But I remember exactly what she said next, when I asked her if she was scared after that to come to the beach—scared to let my dad and uncle swim in that same ocean.
“No, it wasn’t the ocean’s fault.”
Something shifted that day. The ocean continued to be a place of joy— a place of playfulness. But I also came to understand it’s power, and looking back- a sense of awe.
Another story: It’s Memorial Day weekend, just three years ago. For the past five months, I had been on a journey of healing, though really- it felt more like an out of body experience. It had been five months since I had had a miscarriage— a word that at that point in time, I still whispered, or mumbled—unsure of in front of whom and when I could say it aloud. My mentors and friends, teachers and most trusted confidantes kept encouraging me to do something– something to acknowledge what had been lost.
My memory of this time in my life is of living in a prolonged state of in-between— like standing on the edge of something, unable to move backward or ahead. In some ways, I grieved the way one would grieve any death. And yet, I wasn’t quite sure how to mourn something or someone I never knew— how to acknowledge the loss of potential.
I went to the mikvah. It’s an instinctual decision, and not one that I spent a great deal of time thinking about beforehand. I had been here at Hevreh for my last intern visit of that year, and with the holiday weekend, Josh and I decided to go visit a friend in Boston after Shabbat.
Even as I walked through the doors of Mayyim Hayyim, the progressive mikvah in the Boston area, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, or what I thought would happen. I had been to the mikvah one other time, before my wedding— but this was different.
Looking back now on that moment when I entered the room where the mikvah was, the memory is one of liminality: of standing on a spiritual threshold. My mind flashed to a song I had learned once at camp- about Nachshon ben Aminadav, the first Israelite to step foot into the Red Sea.
I take the first step onto the spiral staircase leading into the living waters. Truthfully, my mind is spinning. My heart is racing, and I don’t know if I want to jump in or run away.
Then I remember the words of my spiritual director, Rabbi Yael: “You need a spiritual mantra– something that speaks to your heart, quieting your mind and healing your spirit.”
I close my eyes. I start to hum, quietly— barely audibly, to myself. Ozi v’zimrat yah…
This is my spiritual mantra. Ozi v’zimrat yah, My strength and God’s song, Vayehi li lishua, will be my safehold and salvation. These are the words that I carry with me. How we arrive at a spiritual watershed moment may be different for each one of us—for me, it was an experience of loss. But I imagine it as standing on an edge, and experiencing fear and doubt.
When Moses and Miriam and all of Israel stood at the edge of the sea, I imagine it as not only a physical, but a spiritual precipice as well. I imagine them standing there—having left the narrowness of slavery, hurrying out from the only home they have never known.
The fear, the doubt—the exultation—it’s all there.
After all, what does that edge of the sea represent if not the precipice of change: not just the physical change of leaving one land and crossing over to another; but the spiritual transformation that is necessary to go from slavery to freedom- to experience true redemption.
The Song of the Sea captures that intensely broad range of emotion in poetry. Our Torah tells us that standing there at the shores of the sea, Moses was moved to song, and that these were his words too: Ozi v’zimrat yah vayehi li lishua.