Song at the Sea

The Song at the Sea


We began today, as always, with check-ins, letting each other know where we find ourselves on our personal journeys at this time. A blessing over challah and salt for a new home, and we entered our Torah study.

The Kavannah for our study for this year: the building of sacred community. We will read portions of the books of Shemot (Exodus) and BaMidbar (Numbers) to gain insight into those factors that were important in the way our ancestors built such a community following the exodus from Egypt. Finding themselves on the eastern shore of the Reed Sea, looking back as the Egyptian chariots and their drivers were covered by the waters of the returning sea, then turning to face . . . the vastness of the unknown wilderness facing them. How did the ancient Children of Israel go from a bereft group of refugees, spiritually drained by hundreds of years of enslavement, into a vibrant, interwoven, spiritual community? What bound them together? How were connections established and preserved? What lessons does their journey from diverse multitude to unified community have to teach us in the context of our modern Western culture of polarization and individualization?

But where to begin? We elected to start with the Song at the Sea:

Exodus 15:20 “Sing to HaShem, for He is exalted above the arrogant . . . “

Moses, then Miriam and the women, lead the Israelites in song, dance, music, drumming of gratitude to HaShem for having led them out of the narrow place. So community building begins with song and dance – bodies engaging and sharing movement and sound, physical experience of communal emotion and memory. The Song at the Sea is linguistically the oldest Hebrew found in Torah, the central ring of the trunk of the Tree of Life that is Torah. As an oral culture we sing to remember – Torah sustains us with song, we are a song. We imagine our next Passover Village full of even more song, more music, more drums and timbrels than we’ve had in years past.

Exodus 15:24: “The people complained . . . what shall we drink? “

Journeying 3 days without water in the Wilderness of Shur, they find water, but it is bitter, and they name the place Marah (bitterness). We recall Naomi naming herself “Marah” as well, upon her return to Bethlehem having lost her husband and 2 sons. The people complain to Moses, there, 3 days out, with nothing but toxic water to drink.

Exodus 15:25 “He cried out to HaShem, and HaShem showed him a tree . . .”

Moses does not know what to do, and in this place of frustration and crisis, cries out. The verb Yitz’Ahk means a real, gut level crying out, an authentic deep emotion finding its way from the deepest place of Moshe, the EHYH (“I Am”) of Moshe, out to full expression, flowing out to the YHVH of Moshe. We realize how much time we might spend trying to think through a problem, struggle, intellectualize, psychoanalyze, get stuck. Here we find a different way, a calling out from a humble place of just not knowing. Another way to move when stuck: “Who do I need to be in this matter?”

By asking the question, the answer arrives. But what is this “tree” (Aitz) that HaShem shows Moshe? It may simply be his staff, the same staff that he used to create wonders in Egypt. Now God is showing him – “You have what it takes to solve this problem, it is in your hand, do this!” - reinforcing the authority of Moshe. Moses throws the tree into the water and the water became sweet. Like the trees planted by the early Zionists in Israel to drain the swamps, the living element of the tree brings life.

So what lesson does this hold for us in building community? When we face the bitter waters of community, the struggles and conflicts that naturally come when many people come together in pursuit of unified purpose, what is the living Aitz that needs to be introduced to sweeten the waters so that all may drink? One practical tool from the work with Council: when really stuck, we can do work with the “third” – what does the spirit of the Village want?

Exodus 15:25: “There he set a law and an ordinance . . .”

God establishes a law here on this occasion, a Chok, and an ordinance or judgment, a Mishpat. What is a Chok? Chet – the first letter of the words Chaim, life, and Cham, warmth, thus invoking the heated flow of life. The Kuf – for Kadesh – holiness. The role of supreme authority is to establish such laws, designed to bring the flow of life to the place of the holy.

Exodus 15:26: “I am HaShem, your Healer”

God establishes here a test, a proving ground. Listen to my voice, do justice, observe His laws, and he will not bring the diseases that he placed on Egypt onto the people. So is that it? Does Torah really hold that God sets the rules and we have to follow or He will punish us, as he did Egypt? Where does our own personal sense of what is right and wrong come into it? What about the collective sense of what is important? What is the role of the supreme authority? Or is this metaphor telling us that there are rules and laws of spirit and nature that are in place that, if followed, will lead to blessing. If not followed, consequence. This is not about a judging, spiteful deity, just the plain facts and natural laws of the universe we live in.

“The entire assembly . . . arrived at the Wilderness of Sin, between Elim and Sinai”

Following the healing of the waters of Marah, the people came to Elim, an oasis of 12 springs of sweet water and 70 date palms. But they couldn’t stay. The mythic journey to the sacred mountain, the journey of becoming, can’t settle for the mirage of comfort and seeming abundance which is only halfway there. The Wilderness of Sin is a place of rugged rocks, baking dirt, a place in which it is a struggle to move even a short distance. We must cross it to get to where we need to go. But where are we trying to get to? We notice that the word Sinai, formed by adding the letter yud to the word Sin, can be interpreted as “my Sin”. So our sacred mountain contains our personal place of struggle, perhaps even is our Wilderness.

Arriving at Sin, the people again complain against Moshe – “at least in Egypt we had meat and bread which we could eat to satiety. Here we will die of famine”. It is difficult to go into the unknown. Much fear, uncertainty, so much that it seems better to have stayed in the stuck place of slavery.

We realize this is an initiation story of mythic proportions, a transformation story, not dissimilar to similar myths of other cultures. Each person has a personal wilderness to cross. But in this story, there is also a wilderness that the entire community needs to cross together. It is in this wilderness where we learn the natural order of how to be whole.

We’ll pick it up from there when we meet next month.

Next Gathering: Saturday, July 2

Location: Santa Monica