Sinai Synagogue, Shabbat AM, January 19, 2019
Rabbi Michael Friedland
In February 1964, in a paper presented at the Metropolitan Conference on Religion and Race, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Abraham Joshua Heschel offered a midrash on a portion of this morning’s Torah portion. The climax of our Torah portion is the splitting of the Sea of Reeds; according to the Sages this moment was comparable to the Revelation of the Divine at Sinai. And yet just verses later, in fact in the very same Torah aliyah, we are told that three days into the desert the people are complaining bitterly that they have no water to drink. Heschel pointed out this seeming discrepancy, how was this possible?
Chiding his audience, Heschel explained: This episode seems shocking. What a comedown! Only three days earlier they had reached the highest peak of prophetic and spiritual exaltation, and now they complain about such a prosaic and unspiritual item as water. . . . The Negroes of America ( I am using Heschel’s language here) behave just like the children of Israel. Only in 1963 they experienced the miracle of having turned the tide of history, the joy of finding millions of Americans involved in the struggle for civil rights, the exaltation of the fellowship, the March to Washington. Now only a few months later they have the audacity to murmur: “What shall we drink? We want adequate education, decent housing, proper employment.” How ordinary, how unpoetic, how annoying! . . . We are ready to applaud dramatic struggles once a year in Washington. For the sake of lofty principles we will spend a day or two in jail somewhere in Alabama. . . . But that prosaic demand for housing without vermin, for adequate schools, for adequate employment…sounds so trite, so drab, so banal, so devoid of significance.” Heschel responded to the reality of his day, that for many white people the civil rights movement ended with favorable legislation but the hard work of transforming decaying infrastructure in black communities and offering real opportunities for financial advancement was not happening.
And Heschel was right to see a parallel in our Torah portion. Surely, this Torah reading contains some of the most dramatic and well-known scenes in all of written literature. The liberation of the Israelite slaves by God, the pursuit of the fleeing Hebrews by Pharaoh and his army, the splitting of the Red Sea, with Israel crossing safely beyond and Pharaoh's forces drowning in the waters -- these scenes indelibly shaped the consciousness of the Jewish people throughout our tumultuous history. We are who we are precisely because we recall our origins as a slave people, because so much of Jewish practice is designed to remind us that we owe our freedom to a God of love and justice.
But then why does the Torah include this passage, of bitter complaint and bellyaching so soon after this moment of spiritual zenith? Why point out the crass petty needs of the children of Israel? Isn’t the Torah supposed to highlight our people’s greatness and specialness in the eyes of God?
A midrash in the Midrashic collection Sh'mot Rabbah, seems to be aware of this embarrassment. It asks, "Have you forgotten all the miracles which God performed for you?" And yet to be brutally honest the entire Bible can be read as a book about the failure of God to inculcate the value of gratitude to the Jewish people. From this moment through the prophetic texts, the claim of Jewish spiritual leaders is consistently, “why are you not more grateful for all that God has done for you?” Miracles, rather than teaching thankfulness and appreciation, seem to be an ineffective way of instilling an unswerving consciousness of God.
We can look at a few examples. First, God places the Adam and Eve in an idyllic garden. That doesn't work; they disobey anyway. Then God pushes the restart button by sending a flood. Within several generations humans have been corrupted once again, idolatry enters into the world. God restarts again with one family, the family of Abraham. On the way to creating a nation out of the Abrahamic clan, the Jewish people are enslaved, and God sends Moses to lead the liberation. After ten miraculous plagues and a split sea, the people gain physical redemption and also achieve a spiritual revelation --but the moment wears off.
Even after the Sinaitic Revelation – the moment when the whole world stopped and God revealed the Divine self to the people as a whole, a little more than a month later the Israelites are building a Golden idol. The Bible seems to indicate that miracles don't work.
Rabbi Brad Artson points out that “To reform human character takes much more than "special effects," no matter how Divine their origin. To transform human behavior requires not grandiose drama, but rather constant and gradual education, reinforcement, discipline and community. The shift from biblical to rabbinic Judaism reflects the growing, divine insight that the way to mold a sacred people lies not in external miracles, but in inner transformation.”
This may have been a uniquely Jewish insight. The ancient Greek scholars did not see things that way. Cicero, the great Roman statesman, lawyer, scholar, and orator posited, “The gods attend to great matters; they neglect the small ones.” According to Aristotle the gods were not concerned with individual fortune. But to the Hebrew prophet nothing is more important than the plight of the human person. Amos makes it clear that God cares more about the appropriateness of loans and mortgages than ritual offerings.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The teaching of Judaism is the theology of the common deed. The Bible is concerned ultimately with everydayness, with the trivialities of life…The prophet’s field of concern is not the mysteries of heaven, the glories of eternity but the blights of society, the affairs of the marketplace.”
The transformation of society which was the ultimate goal of the prophets was more likely to occur due to small, prosaic progress than by magnificent displays of supernatural events.
We can act on this prophetic concern by gradually incorporating 'mitzvot' into our daily lives. Observing Shabbat is a way of acknowledging that the whims of the marketplace do not rule our lives. Giving tzedakah on a regular basis is way to redistribute our blessings to those who have less blessings and natural benefits than we do. Kashrut and even more importantly the blessings accompanying our eating should make us cognizant of what and where the food that sustains us comes from; daily prayer can help us negate the ego centrism that causes so much strife in our lives and regular Torah study brings us into contact with the wisdom of our Sages. Powerful one time experiences may impress themselves for a short time in our consciousness but it is the daily observance of mitzvot, acts of loving kindness that lead us to remake ourselves in the Divine image.
This weekend we celebrate the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. Before he was murdered, Dr. King had begun to preach a more holistic message than merely achieving civil rights for African Americans. He was concerned with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War and its heavy handed foreign policy against nations we saw as too close to the Soviet Union. He lead marches for jobs and anti poverty crusades. This is what Heschel was responding to in his words to the Conference on Religion and Race. The concerns of King and Heschel are still sadly cogent today. When so many inner city schools are exclusively African American, and those schools are poorly funded, the fact that America could elect a black man as President as remarkable as that may seem given our country’s history of racism, it does not change the reality lived by so many in black or Latino communities. Such a transformation is much more difficult than merely splitting a sea. It involves a tenacity and an openness that must be cultivated continually by communal leaders.
The commitment to transform our American society to make it more fair and equal is not that different from transforming our Jewish souls to becoming more connected to God and our heritage. Each requires constant, persistent, daily actions. Fighting to put more money into public education, making a commitment to daily prayer, insisting that cities make available affordable housing and public transportation so everyone has employment opportunities, saying a bracha before and after we eat, all of these mundane determinations will lead us to creating the society and the community we and God so fervently hope for – after the people complained about not having water, God shows Moshe how to make the bitter waters potable. In that moment God realized that it’s the prosaic needs that must be taken cared of first. And Moses understood as well what the Israelites needed to learn “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in God’s sight, giving ear to God’s commandments and keeping all God’s laws, then the Lord will not be an adversary to you but your healer”. May we all have the tenacity to make that relationship a reality.