Parashat Beshallah: The Harder Road and the Women’s March
The Women’s Marches in 2017 and 2018 were dramatic and proud expressions of a commitment to equality and justice for women, people of color, LGBTQ Americans, and all who have been systemically impacted by the hateful rhetoric that has been emboldened over the last 3 years. So many people participated in these marches across the country and in Washington, DC as part of a national movement of resistance and defiance, and many will do so again this weekend.
In the shadow of these historic events, there has been a deeply hurtful and resurgent tremor beneath the surface, a reminder that anti-Semitism remains the world’s oldest hatred, with insensitivities, tropes, and a seemingly flagrant embrace of anti-Semitic leaders from those whom we count on as allies and friends.
There is not enough space here to rehash the back and forth between Women’s March leaders and the Jewish women who have been at the forefront of the discord of the last two years – all of whom I believe are determined to find a way to a promised land of equality and justice for all. Ultimately, divisions between Jews and People of Color only serve to further the aims of those white supremacists and nationalists, who have always pitted us together, and see us as other.
In recent weeks, I have been heartened that several of my colleagues and friends – feminists, rabbis, teachers, activists all – have been meeting with leaders of the National Women’s March to better understand one another, to listen, to share, and ultimately to come closer to the kind of empathic solidarity that can work for everyone. It isn’t perfect, and there has been a lot of hurt to go around. It has, in a sense, already been a very long and hard road since the pink knitted hats flooded the streets of America in 2017, and we are clearly still on the edge of the narrowness of America in 2019.
I was thinking about this when I opened the text of Parashat Beshallah. This portion tells of the dramatic exodus from Egypt following the plagues, and the climactic parting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds by the Israelites, their celebration upon reaching the other side, and their initial challenges of being free people.
The text begins with the verse, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was the nearer (ki karov hu)…” (Exodus 13:17) Upon leaving Egypt, there were two possible routes to the Promised Land: through the Land of the Philistines, a nearer and perhaps easier route; and through the wilderness, the harder and farther route. It is not surprising that the text wants us to understand that the way to the Promised Land was not going to be a straight shot, without challenges or disappointments. The text is reminding us that the precious milestones and achievements we have reached on a winding path in our personal and political lives, are often the hardest won and can be the most rewarding.
Jews, Muslims, People of Color, women, LGBTQ people, and immigrants have all been through a communal “Egypt,” and each of us individually has likely been through our own Egypt, and if we haven’t yet, we know there will be inevitably difficult experiences on our way into the future. If everything we have came easily, would we appreciate its value? Of course, we would all like to avoid unnecessary hardship and oppression, but we also know that in order for racial, economic, and gender justice to be achieved in America, we in the Jewish community must continue to stand up against the threats to democracy and make that journey to the promised land, however long it is.
The Israelites faced an uncertain future when they left Egypt, but knew there was no turning back. Redemption did give way to revelation, as Sinai was on the harder path taken by the newly freed, mixed multitude on the way to becoming a people. Their diversity did give way to unity, and they, and we, are instructed to listen to, and for, the Oneness that links all that is.
Whether or not you participate in a local march or in the National Women’s March this coming weekend, the commitment to justice and liberation for all people requires all of us to stay in the fight. We all have a lot to learn about the complex intersections of anti-Semitism and racism, and remembering and then transforming the meaning of our “Egypt” and the hard road to promise, is not only crucial to our spiritual lives, it is vital to our shared humanity.
*I am indebted to my colleagues Rabbis Sharon Brous, Lauren Grabelle Herrmann, Sharon Kleinbaum, as well as Yavila Mccoy and Shifra Broznick whose articulation of the issues at hand inspired this piece.