Growing up in Israel meant that in my junior and senior years of high school "interfaith dialogue" translated into spending a few shabbats and holidays a year with a blended group of Israeli high - schoolers, who stood at every possible point on the "Jewish belief and observance spectrum." These seminars were organized by Gesher, who saw (and continues to see) this form of dialogue as their mission. We believed that if we could learn together, and live together for these intense periods of time at Gesher's dwelling in Tzfat, we would transform our country. While the Jewish identity of Israel continues to define and redefine itself, some of us, over thirty years later, are still walking together with deep love and conviction. It was there, in the midst of our intense ten day summer Midrasha / learning; introvert sixteen year - old Mimi, heard Prof. Nechama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, (1905 - 1997) ROAR at us: "Do you think that the Ten Commandments came down at Sinai with Rashi's commentary on the bottom of the Tablets??? (Rashi - Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, 11th century French commentator on the Bible and Talmud) Keep your eyes on the top of the page and read the verses! Ask questions before you read the answers!" I confess, not only was "Nechama," as she insisted everyone call her, a role model as a Torah scholar, divine teacher and modest woman of faith, she was also the most intimidating teacher of Torah that I ever had!
It is for this reason that I always feel guilty reading Rashi's commentary when I haven't earned the depth of his perspective with the quality of work Nechama would've demanded of me prior to seeing "what does Rashi say..." Again, I confess, this is the case when looking at verse 15 of chapter 14: "God said to Moshe, "What [MAH] are you crying out to me - Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey!"
To my defense I could claim that once you learn that the Chassidic Master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772 - 1810), teaches that what God is saying is "All you have to do is call out to me... even if you don't know how to pray or what to say, it is enough if you call out "what / MAH" and I will answer you, you will not stay stuck where you are" I find it hard to silence that specific teaching and look at the verse as if I'm seeing it for the first time. So yes, shamefully I admit, I read the verse and without thinking looked to see what Rashi had to say on the words "let them journey":
"There is nothing for them to do but to travel, for the sea does not stand as a barrier before them."
You must agree with me that Rashi does not seem too reasonable at that moment... How can he say that the ocean is not a barrier - Looking at it, was it anything but where they would all drown, considering the Egyptians on their heels - How could Rashi not see the ocean as a barrier??? When all the Children of Israel saw with their eyes was the ocean, what option did they really have at that moment -
Rashi then continues and quotes the Midrash: "The merit of their forefathers, and of themselves, and the faith they had in Me when they went out of Egypt are sufficient to split the sea for them."
Now I have something to work with. Rashi is teaching me that there are levels and stages in exiting Egypt and claiming freedom. Physical redemption is only the first step in this journey that God is calling us to embark on. Physically leaving Egypt will only take us to the shore of the sea, but will not split it! To transcend the physical quality of freedom we need so much more. We need to be open to see beyond what our physical eyes see! We need to be able to believe in what was impossible for us to hold on to for the centuries we were enslaved in Egypt.
We need to be able to believe in the legacy that our Patriarchs and Matriarchs created for us, dreaming about us and our future. We need to believe in ourselves. We need to believe in our relationship with God. We need to believe that God loves us and is committed to us in a manner that transcends the one time act of physically setting us free from Egypt!
The Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic tradition (1700 - 1760) in a very famous teaching sees Mitzrayim / Egypt and Yisrael / Israel as manifestations of states of consciousness. Mitzrayim being a state of contracted consciousness (meitzartranslates as a "strait", a narrow place) and Yisrael (in Hebrew the word Yisrael in configured by two words "li rosh" that translates as "my head") signifies expanded consciousness. Not geographic locations, but rather states of being; states that we find ourselves falling back into, and breaking free into them again and again.
Often when my students ask me a question regarding my future I ask them what they are really asking. I challenge them by asking in return: "Why would you want to limit my future based on the limitations of my past, and the constraints of my current knowledge of myself and the information available to me?" I believe this is true for each and every one of us, when thinking about our futures, and where our lives can lead us.
I believe that Rashi is challenging us to claim our lives in ways that we could not imagine it to be as long as we were enslaved - whether physically, emotionally, psychologically, spiritually or intellectually. Rashi is challenging us to acknowledge the multi-faceted manifestations of our life that enslave us and to claim our legacy, our sense of self and our belief and trust in God. It is only when we can do so are we free.
I have heard it being said in the name of both (distinguishing between the living and the 'living') Natan Sheransky and Nelson Mandela (1918 - 2013) that only their bodies were incarcerated; their spirit was always free.
God is telling Moshe: "...What [MAH] are you crying out to me - Speak to the Children of Israel and let them journey!" God is telling Moshe to tell us that the physical exodus was only the beginning of the journey. There is a redemptive journey that each and every one needs to claim for themselves. I believe that this is what God was praying on our behalf when we reached the Sea of Reeds. I believe that God was praying: "Don't stop here... journey on... claim all that is yours... don't limit your eyes to what you see in front of you... only with your physical eyes is there an ocean that holds you back, but if you have faith in your heritage, in yourself and in our relationship then even this sea can split open on your behalf!"
I truly believe that God holds us in this prayer every day of our lives, every time we feel stuck and enslaved to our thoughts, to our circumstances, to our vices.
May we merit to walk through the forty nine gates of freedom with faith and trust. May we be strong enough not embrace freedom ourselves, but help those we find stumbling on the way as well.
Shabbat shalom and may this Shabbat liberate us on all levels.