[The following dvar torah was given by Temple Israel member and College of Saint Scholastica faculty member Elyse Carter-Vosen on 1/18/19 at our special Shabbat Shirah service for the week of Torah portion Beshalach (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16). Kol Hakavod, Elyse!]
This week’s Torah portion, Beshalach, “when he let go…” refers to Pharoah releasing the children of Israel into the desert. But I’d like to reflect more broadly on the idea of letting go, and its implications for justice work, for I have found this theme of release central to both human relationships with the natural world and to the transformative power of song.
In order to draw people together, to work in harmony with each other and especially with land, requires a deep well of energy and optimism, strength and resiliency. Working toward economic and environmental sustainability as well as social equity and cross-cultural respect can be an exhausting and sometimes paralyzing task. What I have realized is that one must first know and free oneself from oppressive mindsets. The most dramatic part of the Beshalach occurs in this way:
“And Pharaoh will say about the children of Israel, They are trapped in the land. The desert has closed in upon them.” And the children of Israel, feeling trapped and frustrated, cried out to Moses, questioning him: “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us to die in the desert? “ Why didn’t you just leave us there? They wondered. The known oppression was better in that moment than the unknown wilderness.
But Moses said to the people, “Don't be afraid! Stand firm and see the power that God will wield for you today,” And God told Moses that if he raised his staff and stretched out his hand, the sea would part, and the children of Israel would somehow miraculously go through to the other side. Then Moses and the children of Israel sang to God, and later Miriam, the prophetess, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women came out after her with dances.
For me, the image of the parting sea that includes looming, gargantuan walls of water on either side has never particularly spoken to me. As a very sensorily-oriented person, I imagine what it would feel like, and I cannot embrace it because my fear takes over. My chest feels like it’s crushing in and I start to panic. I’m deeply claustrophobic. I get that from my mom. And there is another legacy she passed along to me: a deep curiosity and desire for adventure and discovery, and especially a deep yearning for closeness with land, with its openness and its possibility.
I was seven when we moved onto our thirty acres of pine and birch, with the loons and the deer, the warm sun on fallen logs and the soft dark mystery of the mossy swamp. I knew immediately those woods were the place for me. I loved wandering in them with my mom. I soaked up her knowledge, wanting to know every plant and every tree. Sometimes I pretended to run away into the woods, and imagined what it would be like to live there, but what always held me back was that feeling of aloneness. I ultimately needed other voices. I ventured out but then I had to turn back home.
My very first year of college, Spring Break came, and there was an opportunity to travel across the country from Minnesota to go rock-climbing in Joshua Tree national monument. I picked up the phone to call my single mom and I thought, “I’m prone to heatstroke. I could fall off a cliff. There’s no way she’s going to say yes to this.” But she said, “Go.”
Having never spent time in the desert, I was mesmerized by its stark beauty. We each spent an afternoon on a solo hike, and I remember that feeling of being completely alone with my thoughts, for hours. As someone who keeps my mind busy with thoughts from morning until night, I imagined it would be overwhelming, but when I got out there, I stepped calmly away from a rattlesnake, watched the sun slowly creep up the canyon wall, and I felt surprisingly free.
The summer after my sophomore year, there was an internship possibility in Bangor, Maine As I picked up the phone, I thought, “Ok, she let me do this once, but this time, I know no one. I don’t have a car, I don’t have a place to live.” And she said, “Go.” When I roommate took her car every weekend and went home to New Hampshire, I wandered the Maine countryside walking five, eight, ten miles at a time. I wandered through farmers’ hayfields and got lost in the woods.
Years later, my mom went on a 10-day solo trip to New Zealand. My dad couldn’t get away from his work in Australia, so she just booked herself a tour, and she went. She had been living with her life-threatening autoimmune disease for a couple of years, and I think it focused her. She started taking more time to breathe, but also taking more risks. She didn’t know a soul, but she went. She traveled with new people, learned about Maori culture, and drank in the power of the lush green mountains. Throughout my whole life, I was inspired by her adventurousness and courage, from the life of survival she created for us in the woods and her backbreaking work in the mines, to living through her health challenges and ultimately facing cancer, to this trip she took on her own in her sixties. Her curious, artistic spirit and openness to other people have left me a path to follow.
So perhaps it is no surprise that when the opportunity came last year as an ethnomusicologist to pursue fieldwork in the Berkshires of Connecticut, the woods of upstate New York, and the Mohave Desert, I went. I went to Boston and Philadelphia too, seeking Jewish communities where I’d never been before. In the West Philadelphia neighborhood of the Jewish Farm School and Reconstructionist congregation Kol Tzedek, I saw people taking beautiful risks, reaching out across their differences. There are partnerships with the local mosque, with the local branch of Black Lives Matter, with churches on immigration issues, and with a whole range of urban farmers that host Philly Farm School volunteers to ameliorate food insecurity in West and Northeast Philadelphia. Kol Tzedek shares its worship space with two churches, and the Jewish Farm School share an office and learning space, which hosts Shtetl Skills workshops and a nigun collective.
I spent a Shabbat at Kol Tzedek in West Philly, at a gathering called Let My People Sing. Its founders believe in “the liberatory power of song and the importance of vibrant Jewish singing communities.” The creators of these weekends of song are all graduates of the Adamah farm fellowship, which immerses a cohort of 20-35 year olds in a three-month intensive experience of work, prayer, and study on a six-acre organic farm at Isabella Freedman, also home to Hazon, the headquarters of the Jewish environmental movement in Connecticut. I spent Sukkot and Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, drinking in Torah study, hikes, food grown on the Adamah farm, prayer, and song. I spent a day at the farm at Eden Village Camp, getting sunburned and dragging a rake through muddy soil, helping prepare fields for planting. While we thinned tiny carrot plants, I got to talk with a set of college students doing a summer fellowship at the camp’s farm. I sat down and talked with the camp director about his philosophies of creativity, which encompass growing food, kids, hands-on learning, and artistic expression.
And thirty years after my first trip to the desert, I found myself back in the desert again. This time my travels took me near Death Valley, celebrating Passover with Wilderness Torah. It was a long plane trip, an even longer drive through LA traffic on 12-lane freeways. Incredibly, the rush of traffic gradually narrowed to 8 lanes, then 4, then 2, and then, almost impossibly, I found myself on dusty dirt roads with no more phone signal, outside the ghost town of Ballarat in the Panamint Valley. There a small village of tents had been constructed of steel poles weighted down by sand, with canvas tops and sheer black mesh walls so the wind comes through, adorned by large batiked cloths and filled with colorful, vibrant people of every age, gender, and Jewish ethnicity.
On Shabbat morning, we chanted the morning blessings, sang some psalms, and then walked out into the desert for an extended silent Amidah. For me, it was anything but silent, especially at first, because I was surrounded by the clamor of thoughts in my head.
In Hebrew, Egypt is called Mitzrayim. According the mystical text of the Zohar, the name is derived from m’tzarim, meaning “narrow straits” or “from the narrows.” The children of Israel came through that narrow strait and went out into the midbar, the wilderness. And it was there that they wandered until they found themselves.
My “narrow place” is being devoured by my thoughts and worries. I know I am not alone in this constriction. Many of us drive ourselves too hard, succeeding, producing. Carrying so deeply about so many things has its price: we carry a cacophony of critical voices and fears in our heads.
Sitting in the desert, I was struck by the fact that being in touch with earth, in whatever form that takes, forces us to encounter the world directly through our senses. I made a list of all of the sounds I heard: the rush of the wind, the peeping song of a single bird, a fly buzzing by, an insect rustling a twig as it crawled over it. And here was I, quiet enough that I could listen to the beat of my own heart. Hineni.
I looked around and saw colors. The orange canyon, the ridged red rocks, pink and white quartz, charcoal basalt, green sage, deeper green creosote bushes with bright yellow flowers, tiny white flowers in a gray dried bush, smooth cream and beige mountains, and some deeper brown mountains with smooth wrinkles like an old person’s face.
After three hours, at the sound of a shofar blowing, one by one we wandered back to the Tent of Meeting. We sang “Esa Einai” and “Ma Norah HaMakom Hazeh” (how awesome is this place). And it was. We sang the same song on Shabbat morning this fall at the Reconstructing Judaism convention, once more in the heart of Philadelphia. It was a rich, harmonious sound. We were invited to turn around and look around us, to take in all of the beautiful, imperfect people who were a part of this beautiful, imperfect place.
For me, the greatest gifts are gratitude and quiet, and they are both hard-won. I have recognized that this yearning for openness of my soul is shared by many people of several generations I have encountered during this past year. We feel weighed down by anxieties, pulled in many directions by responsibilities, and at times trapped by the narrow places of wanting so badly to solve the world’s injustices, all the while pushing ourselves to ill health. The incidence of anxiety and depression has skyrocketed during the past two generations. According to psychologists, up to 33% of all adults in our country over age 18 has a diagnosed anxiety disorder. The youngest generation speaks frequently at how overwhelmed they are at all of the choices and problems in the world.
It’s messy, seeking freedom. The sea doesn’t open up neatly and make a path. As David Teutsch notes in a commentary in Kol Haneshamah, the divine-human partnership, the process of becoming, is messier than a retreat in the wilderness because we have to do our lives every day. He notes, “in the rabbinic imagination, the ancient Israelites slog through mud up to their knees, their waists, even their chests. It falls to us to continue the task of redemption—to face the contemporary morass and find the resolve to wade through it with waves threatening to submerge us on either hand…The hint of the Promised Land is in our loving moments.”
What I am finally starting to come to, nearing age 50, is this realization of needing love not only others but oneself deeply enough to connect to that deeper love and healing that permeates the world. We have to seek those moments of wholeness in the midst of all of the forces trying to pull us apart. For me personally, I find the same feeling of quiet and healing in sitting and singing, hearing other voices just as I do in hearing the wind or the water, cataloguing the ancient colored rocks and absorbing the wisdom of the mountain’s face, digging my hands into the soil and pulling out weeds. In all of these things is a focus, and a feeling of purpose. Not just idle singing. Not just idle digging. Both are for healing the illnesses of ourselves and the world.
My mom, spent a lot of time working to heal other people. She supported and cooked and nurtured and problem-solved. She was a bartender, so she listened to a lot of people’s daily struggles. She was a union steward who represented maintenance and cleaning staff in positions of lesser power. She took care of her dying mother. And she fought cancer. I am acutely aware of the stress in her life and if there is still time left, I want to try to find better health. I am so grateful for the seeds of light and joy my mom sowed, even in the course of her struggle with the messiness of everything life threw at her. As physically and mentally tough as she was, she never stopped being vulnerable to other people. She never stopped building community and creating beauty around her. I took her spirit with me on so many of my adventures this year.
As we move from Martin Luther King Day toward Passover off in the distance, and as we come to the place in the Torah this week where Miram and the women sing and dance on the muddy bank of the river, I hope we can embrace the value of getting dirty in all of its forms. We need to slog through the mud of our own shortcomings and then find ways to let go.
All week I’ve been carrying around a song in my head which I think gets at the cost of the stress of injustice on our bodies and hearts, and also at the healing power of song, breath, connectedness, and also surrendering to something larger than ourselves. It’s from a Let My People Sing composer named Aly Halpert, and it’s called “Loosen.”
Loosen, loosen baby / You don’t have to carry / The weight of the world in your muscles and bones / Let go, let go, let go
Holy breath, and holy name / Will you ease, will you ease this pain
Surrender is something I am continuing to work on, and I want to keep finding places to encounter it, whether through nature, community work, or song. We as humans are awed by the immense beauty of creation, and are humbled by our own imperfection. We know we cannot do things all by ourselves. We work together to rebuild structures that are constraining and oppressive. We express joy and celebration at overcoming our struggles. The fight for justice goes on and we extend it beyond ourselves. These are Jewish values.