Lifting Up Aspirational Memories

We live in a time when vilifying and dehumanizing those who are different, or depicted as our enemy, is rampant. The Midrash of remembering the humanity of the Egyptians who suffered is a piece of our collective memory that we must hold onto.

One side of the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place, New Orleans
Text on one side of the monument to
the Battle of Liberty Place, New Orleans

An interesting debate is playing out in New Orleans. In the middle of the city there are four monuments that were erected in 1880 to honor three Confederate leaders — General Robert E. Lee, General P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy — and one dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place. In an attempt to reject that legacy, the current City Council voted to remove the statues.

Yet the decision has proven to be controversial. Opposition is fierce. Last week, the company hired to help the city of New Orleans take down the monuments walked away from the job. Its employees received death threats, and other businesses threatened to cancel their contracts. The debate over whether to remove the monuments lifts up an interesting question: What part of history do we choose to commemorate? What are the implications of those choices?

Think about this morning’s portion. It is the key story of our people – leaving the slavery of Egypt, the Sea of Reeds miraculously parting and dancing in celebration of our liberation. What part of the story should we lift up? Are there parts of the story we should avoid celebrating?

In responding to what should be remembered, the rabbis use the story of the Exodus as a jumping off point to explore with the themes of liberation and freedom. They go beyond the historic story and expand upon it by asking questions and looking at it from every angle. They allow room for contrasting interpretations because memory and history are meant to yield multiple meanings.

Memory and art done right challenges you, while simultaneously reminding you who you are meant to be. The memories we choose to lift up from the past frame what the future should be.  All of this is leading to the question of this sermon: What part of the story, or story about the story needs to be highlighted in order to move us to meaning? Looked at from another angle – were you to create the artwork or monuments commemorating the Exodus story, what would you select?

I want to share three key pieces of memory that I believe this story holds and reflect on the artwork that might emerge from these memories. Each of these scenes veers from the Biblical text, lifting up Midrash, which are stories about the stories that allow the lessons emerging from our stories to reflect a variety of different truths.

In chapter 14, realizing they were trapped, the ex-slaves cried bitterly to Moses, “Were there too few graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die here?!” Moses prays for deliverance, reassuring the people that God will battle for them, and is told, Mah tizak alai? – Why do you cry out to Me? “Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” And that is where the Midrash comes in.

The Midrash imagines Moses lifting his rod, and nothing happened. He tries again, and nothing. Panic wells up within him, he tries, again and again. But the Sea does not move. The people scream in terror, but Moses is powerless. Suddenly, out of the crowd, comes one man, identified by the Midrash as Nachshon ben Aminadav, a prince of the tribe of Judah who jumps into the water.

He understood why the Sea would not split. He understood that all of redemption to this point had been enacted by God, and now God waited to see if one of the Israelites would take into his or her own hands the task of redeeming the people. Nachshon jumps in, and wades out until the waters reach his waist. The water soon covers his mouth and only then does the Sea open and the Israelites cross in safety.

We live in a time when vilifying and dehumanizing those who are different, or depicted as our enemy, is rampant.

That would be my first picture – Nachshon jumping into the water.  This story isn’t found in the Torah. The Rabbis are willing to turn the Torah on its head because they felt that as much as they loved the Torah’s exodus story, the human role in the process of redemption was missing. Our memory and the story we tell needs to emphasize that redemption requires risk; someone needs to jump into the cold and dangerous water. Someone visionary and brave must be willing to put life on the line and jump into the waters of history to bring us out of slavery. Elie Wiesel writes: “Once you bring life into the world, you must protect it. We must protect it by changing the world.”  Nachshon protects the world by changing it – teaching that we take redemption in our own hands.

The artwork or monuments of Nachshon jumping into the water would lead us to more questions: What gave him the courage to go first? What gave him the strength to enter the waters before they split? Could I have done this? Where and how does it need to happen now?

My next sacred memory or picture would be the very next scene, where Moses and the Israelites sing to God. Included in the story is Miriam leading the women in song and dance. “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.” It is important to celebrate and lift our voices in joy and song. Too often that aspect of Judaism is overlooked. Elie Wiesel writes: “Think higher. Feel deeper.” Joy and music help us feel deeply, and I believe the stories we tell about the Exodus and Judaism in general need to highlight emotion, joy, song and dance.

It is also important to realize the key role Miriam, who is called a prophetess, played. And as people look at the piece of art of the women dancing – it would raise questions: What is the impact of having women in leadership roles? Why did they choose to bring timbrels with them as they left Egypt? Picture the scene: people were packing in haste. What would you grab? You might grab some food, clothes, maybe a picture – who would think to bring timbrels? Maybe these women has such great faith and confidence that they would succeed that they planned for the celebration. Maybe their lesson to us is the power of hope and optimism. Elie Wiesel writes: “Hope is like peace. It is not a gift from God. It is a gift only we can give one another.” I would include the scene with Miriam and the women dancing because hope is a gift from God we need to learn about, cultivate and hold on to. Do we live life with that type of hope? Are we making time to sing and dance and feel joy?

The third scene I would try to depict artistically or highlight in teaching is another Midrash from the same moment. The Midrash wonders what God is doing during all of this celebration. Again, it is not in the Torah but has become part of our collective memory. In one of the most quoted passages from the Talmud, God’s angels start singing a song at the sea. God rebuked them, “My handiwork is drowning in the sea and you utter songs before me!” (Sanhedrin 39b) There is a profound and important teaching in this passage. Even our enemies are God’s creatures, created in God’s image – treasured handiwork. It is why we pour a little wine from our cups at the Seder. We hold onto the humanity of each human, and it opens the door to healing. “Someone who hates one group will end up hating everyone – and, ultimately, hating himself or herself,” Wiesel wrote.

We live in a time when vilifying and dehumanizing those who are different, or depicted as our enemy, is rampant. The Midrash of remembering the humanity of the Egyptians who suffered is another piece of our collective memory that we must hold onto. Sometimes that which we lift up in art or significance, the memories we choose to emphasize, remind us of crucial lessons for our current times.

Let’s be aware of the power we have to create memory through what we highlight in story and art. Memory is a key piece of what makes us a unique people. The power of the debate in New Orleans is that it asks us to confront what we lift up in our collective memory. We get to engage in that discussion every year as we study this portion and celebrate Passover. What aspects of our collective memory will we choose to lift up? Are we devoting enough energy as individuals and community to think about that question? Again, I quote Elie Wiesel: “Without memory, there is no culture. Without memory, there would be no civilization, no society, no future. … For in the end, it is all about memory, its sources and its magnitude, and, of course, its consequences.” Let’s think about what memories we lift up and explore so that memory can inform, inspire and challenge.

*Based on sermon by Rabbi Barry Katz