I feel a deep sense of privilege to be standing before you this morning as part of our Lower Connecticut Valley Women’s March. I am also aware that my being here as a rabbi is not without controversy – as many of you know, there has been a great deal of heartache and struggle for many Jewish women over whether or not to participate in these marches all over the country. We’ve been told that it is not possible to be both feminist and a Zionist (I am both), and that we Jews cannot understand the struggles of women of color (which neglects to acknowledge the many Jews of color all over the world). I have engaged in my own wrestling, I have read wise, passionate words from colleagues and friends on both sides of the divide, and, as you can clearly tell, I have proudly chosen to be here.
And please don’t mistake my presence here as a dismissal of the importance of the rise of anti-Semitism in our country and around the world. Ever since the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, we Jews have been ever more afraid and concerned about anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish sentiment in our public and private discourse. And we remain fundamentally worried about the rise of incidents of racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and way too many more to count.
Yet I am heartened by the fact that, though two leaders of the national Women’s March seem to still have some trouble disassociating themselves from anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric, I am so strongly in support of the Unity Principles expressed by the steering committee of the Women’s March, that it compels me to focus on the bigger picture. So I stand her with all of you, recognizing that we women must stand together across all divides in order to truly make a difference. I stand here precisely because my Jewish tradition mandates that I see the divine spark within every single human being. We women must join together, we must protect each other, we must elevate each other, and we must fight together to make this country into a safe place for us all. No matter our religion, no matter our sexual orientation or gender identity, no matter our socioeconomic status, our age, our abilities, our nations of origin… we must march together to achieve the human rights entitled to us all.
As you may know, we Jews read the Torah in consecutive chapters throughout the year. Each week has its own few chapters which are read and studied by Jews all over the world. It is not a coincidence, I believe, that our event this morning coincides with the moment in the Book of Exodus when the Israelites are finally freed from Egypt. They are fleeing 400 years of oppression and slavery, and they reach the shore of the Red Sea. Picture it: there is an enormous sea in front of them, and the army of their oppressor is quickly gaining on them from behind. We know that the seas will soon part, allowing the Israelites to pass safely through on dry land (as dramatically depicted in Cecil B. Demille’s classic film). But the Israelites don’t yet know that.
Three teachings from this precise part of our holy text inspire me this morning, and I wanted to share them with you.
The first inspiring moment:
When the Israelites express their fear at the approaching army, they cry out in anger to Moses. Moses then pleads with God on their behalf. It was a bit of a “thoughts and prayers” kind of moment. And, frankly, they could have stood there all day, praying and yet paralyzed with fear, until the Pharaoh’s army overtook them and either killed them or enslaved them once again.
Yet, how does God answer Moses’ pleas? “Then God said to Moses: Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward!” I love this – Moses is engaged in prayer, yet God is saying – what good is prayer right now? GO! Action is what is critical in order to truly free yourselves. You need to move, to march, to walk yourselves to freedom. Praying, while comforting, was not going to redeem the oppressed.
Friends, isn’t this what we are doing today?
We are walking, we are marching, and we are carrying ourselves towards redemption. We don’t know exactly how or when it will come, but we know that we must take an active role in bringing it about. We must resist, we must advocate, we must lobby, we must shout it from the rooftops: women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights! We cannot just sit idly by as reproductive rights are stripped one by one from the law-books, when women’s healthcare is less and less of a priority for insurance companies, when ever more #metoo stories break our hearts and enrage us, when the Violence Against Women Act is just quietly allowed to expire. We must resist, we must advocate, we must lobby, and we must shout it from the rooftops: women rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.
Now, the second moment of inspiration from this week’s sacred text:
the Israelites are told to walk towards the water, but the sea had not yet parted. They inched closer, but it remained as deep as ever. Who was going to be brave enough to be the first one to step into the water, with enough courage to see if the sea would finally part? There is a wonderful legend written by rabbis hundreds of years ago which addresses this frightful moment. They tell the story of a person named Nachshon who was the only one brave enough to step forward, away from the crowd, away from the majority who were afraid. Yes, they all wanted freedom, but what were they willing to do to bring it about? Nachshon, according to this legend, steps into the water. He keeps walking, and the water keeps getting deeper. The people watch in fear and dread. Yet he keeps immersing himself, one step at a time, into the Red Sea. It was just as the water was reaching his nose that the Sea finally parted and the moment of freedom arrived. His bravery, his willingness to step away from the pack, and, truly, his faith in justice and righteousness, is what allowed for freedom for everyone.
And, friends, isn’t this, too, what we are doing here today?
We are engaged in a struggle which isn’t always the most popular, which leaves many fearful or passive, and which requires bravery. We maintain a vision of justice and righteousness, and our bravery will allow freedom eventually for everyone.
This time, we, ourselves, are the Waves of Water:
WE are the #WomensWave,
and we are the ones parting
the seas of oppression,
the seas of inequality,
the seas of prejudice,
and the seas of injustice.
The third and final moment from this week’s text:
Once the Israelites reached the other side of the Sea, they sing and dance in celebration. We learn that the women, led in dance by Miriam the Prophetess, played timbrels as they celebrated. This is an interesting detail – if the Israelites were rushing out of their homes, grabbing whatever they could carry in order to flee quickly, why did the women bring musical instruments with them? The scholars studying this long ago offered a wonderful answer: the women had so much faith that everything would turn out just fine, they brought along musical instruments for the celebration they knew was to come.
Friends, we continue to work for the day when that celebration will come. We will continue to carry our musical instruments with us, literally and figuratively, confident that we will win this struggle, that our resistance, our advocacy, our marching, and our bravery will have resulted in true freedom and justice for all.
That day will come my friends, because we all stand side by side, because we are united, and because our #WomensWave has only just begun.