Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Shirah 5783

How do we fight the state of malaise that many of us are struggling with? Rabbi Timoner finds wisdom in the Midrash. 

Listen on CBE Spotify

Emma and Leo, I need to tell you how impressed I am with both of you. Your divrei Torah – both of them – gave me chills. You spoke with such beauty and power and truth. And it just so happens that your messages connect to something I feel a strong need to speak about today.

I feel that we’re in a time of hopelessness in our country. Or if hopelessness is too strong of a word, at least malaise. I have been deep in it with everyone else, so much so that I haven’t quite been able to see it. But this week I spent three days in silent retreat, praying, meditating, and studying with a community of rabbis, and it helped to snap me out of it.

There are a lot of theories as to why we’re feeling so negative these days–
-pandemic grief and fatigue
-added to overstimulation and exhaustion from four chaotic and cynical years of the last president,
-war in Ukraine,
-anticipatory grief of mass species extinction and climate catastrophe,
-fears of economic upheaval and disaster,
-instability and mass migration,
-loss of faith in government, compounded by embarrassing theater in Congress and a compromised Supreme Court,
-the lingering effects of a hate-mongering president, most relevant to us an spike in American antisemitism,
-bitter culture wars including the theft of women’s control over our own bodies, the threat to LGBT civil rights, and the censorship of African American history,
-the impacts of technology on our minds and moods,
-a mental health crisis besieging our kids,
-late stage capitalism, massive wealth inequality, and deep alienation from work for Millennials and Gen Z,
-grindingly persistent systemic racism.

Now, I recognize that we may very well not agree and there is room for us to disagree about what belongs on the list. Even though we might use different words or ideas to describe the problems, I think we all agree that there are big problems plaguing our society and our world. And even those of us who’ve dedicated our lives to repairing and healing this world are pretty immobilized by it all right now.

This week we tell the story of our people’s liberation from slavery, when 430 years of history changed on a dime. When a future that seemed impossible for generations suddenly happened, and our people walked across a sea to freedom. It was the greatest miracle in our history! The Torah tells us that the sea opened up into two walls of water on their left and their right, and the people were able to walk on the seabed between them. The song of the sea, Miriam’s song which you taught us about so beautifully, Emma, demonstrates that the people were in complete awe at God’s power to deliver them alive while their pursuers, their enslavers, were drowned and would harm them no more. In fact, a midrash in Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael, tells us that a maidservant who crossed the sea beheld a wonder that even our people’s greatest prophets never did. Nonetheless, one midrash tells us something different. It tells us of an experience in the midst of the miracle that is, I think, most instructive for our time now. In Shemot Rabbah, we read about two men, Reuven and Shimon, who couldn’t quite take in the fact that they were on the path to freedom. They were so caught up in the mud of the situation, they could not see the walls of water on their right and left, they couldn’t absorb the big picture of what was happening and it didn’t even seem to them that they were in the midst of liberation. The midrash tells us:

“It was precisely at the moment they went down into the sea bed, and found it full of mud, because it was still wet from the water. There were two Israelites Reuven and Shimon who were among the Israelites. As they walked through the sea, all they could talk about was the mud. Reuven said: ‘In Egypt, we had mud, and now in the sea we have mud. In Egypt, we had clay for bricks, and here too, we have an abundance of clay to make bricks.’ They [complained] at the sea, even though this was the parting of the Sea of Reeds! They didn’t notice the water, they only saw the mud.” (Shemot Rabbah 24:1)

I would like to propose today that we are Reuven and Shimon. We are in the midst of crossing the sea. We are in an extremely slow-motion miracle of liberation, but we cannot see the walls of water and we cannot see the path to freedom because it is so damn muddy on the way. We are very familiar with the mud. We are very good at complaining about it, arguing about it, analyzing its composition and viscosity, its stink, and its effect on us. And unlike in Torah, our sea crossing is so slow that many generations will live and die before we get to the other side. But if only we could step back and see ourselves with perspective, we would know that we are crossing a sea. We would know that we are in the midst of a miracle of liberation.

It looks like things are bad, and in many cases they are. But in the big picture, in the span of time, most things are improving dramatically. According to global data compiled by Oxford University,
-Global life expectancy has more than doubled in the past century, rising to an all-time high of 72.
-Two centuries ago, 8 in 10 people still lived in extreme poverty, today it’s fewer than 1 in 10.
-In 1800, nearly half of all children died before the age of five, but today it’s less than 4%.

In the 19th century, people (read: mostly women) spent an average of 58 hours per week on household chores – now it’s fewer than 18. Over this same period, hours spent working outside the home (read: mostly by men) have been slashed in half, down to around 40 hours per week.

It is not linear and it is not as fast as we need it to be. But humanity is becoming more healthy, more free, more just, and more sensitive, and we are responding to environmental catastrophe at an unprecedented speed. As Adrienne Marie Brown said: “We are shaping the future we long for and have not yet experienced. I believe that we are in an imagination battle.” That’s why the story we tell ourselves matters so much.

Let’s take just a couple of examples from the list of worries I named above, starting with the environment. Remember the hole in the ozone layer? If you’re Gen X or older, you do. Two weeks ago, we learned that the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement signed in 1987 that regulated the consumption and production of almost 100 chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that created a hole in the ozone layer and endangered the planet’s entire ecosystem– worked. It saved the planet. More than three decades later, the use of CFCs has decreased by 99%, and the Earth’s ozone layer is on track to fully recover. This shows that we have the ability to reverse our catastrophic impacts on the environment. We not only have the ability, we have the desire.

Rebecca Solnit says, “We’ve largely won the battle to make people more concerned and aware [about climate change.]. The scientific journal Nature published a study concluding that most Americans believe that only a minority (37-43%) support climate action, when in reality a large majority (66-80%) does. [And] we have the solutions we need in solar and wind; we just need to build them out and make the transition, fast. …And the Inflation Reduction Act includes funding to research better battery materials and domestic US sources.”

It is not only possible, it is happening. Since 2008, the UK shifted from 80% fossil fuel to getting more than half of its power from solar, wind, and nuclear, and almost none from coal. Scotland gets nearly 100% of its power from renewables.

Solnit says, “Twenty years ago we did not have constructive ways to leave the age of fossil fuel behind. Now we do. And the solutions keep getting better. In 2021, the organization Carbon Tracker put out a report that showed current technology could produce 100 times as much electricity from solar and wind than current global demand. Their report concludes: “The technical and economic barriers have been crossed and the only impediment to change is political.” The report continues: “At the current 15-20% growth rates of solar and wind, fossil fuels will be pushed out of the electricity sector by the mid-2030s and out of total energy supply by 2050. The unlocking of energy reserves 100 times our current demand creates new possibilities for cheaper energy and more local jobs in a more equitable world, with far less environmental stress.” Solnit concludes: “At the end of the last millennium, those barriers seemed insurmountable. The change is revolutionary, but the revolution was too slow to be visible to most…Because the energy revolution has been incremental, there’s been no single breakthrough moment. Yet it adds up to an encouraging, and even astonishing narrative. On the other hand, people find grim narratives all too believable, whether or not they are grounded in fact. We are still inundated by harmful, as well as untrue, stories about climate and the future. Prophecies can be self-fulfilling: if you insist that we cannot possibly win, you pit yourself against the possibility of victory and the people trying to achieve it.”

This doesn’t mean that we should sit back and watch, quite the opposite. We are all needed to make this transition happen as quickly as possible, and CBE’s Dayenu Circle is working on exactly that. And you can get involved.

Let’s take another item on the list: the culture wars. Emma, you taught us about the incredible progress we are making in gender equality. Your grandmother’s story would not have been possible 200 years ago, and I dare say that Miriam was not going to get credit for the whole Song of the Sea no matter how assertive she was (btw it seems she was pretty assertive). And as you say, neither you nor I would be standing here today if it wasn’t for all of the generations of women who stood and fought for equality. And that fight continues today, including for pay equity, and including the powerful backlash we’re seeing nationwide to the theft of our reproductive rights, which we will win back in our lifetimes. In fact, here at CBE we will be observing Reproductive Justice Shabbat on February 17th for the second year in a row, we’ll be hearing from our members their stories of abortions and births and advocacy, powerful stories to erase invisibility, shame, and stigma.

We’re winning on gender equality in the big picture and we are also winning on LGBT equality. No one is putting us back in the closet. No one is making us doubt our beauty and brilliance ever again. The court will do what it will do, but we have tasted freedom, the culture has moved to embrace us and our love, and there is no going back. And finally, it’s outrageous and backwards that Ron DeSantis can impact the AP African American studies course curriculum. (I know, the change in the curriculum officially had nothing to do with politics). However, let’s remember that there was no African American studies AP course ever before. The use of racism to win votes is the oldest playbook in America and it is infuriating. But overall, this is not a step backward but a massive step forward. We must not lose track of the progress we’re witnessing and a part of. We must not lose heart.

Neuroscientists have demonstrated that our brains are wired for negative thinking and to privilege bad news over good news. According to the National Science Foundation, 80 percent of our thoughts are negative and 95 percent of our thoughts are repetitive. It’s called negativity bias. Evolution has wired us to scan for danger and to obsess over bad news. 120,000 years ago, the best worriers (worriers as well as warriors) survived. Every news department, whether in print, TV, or click bait social media knows that bad news sells. So that’s what we see. That’s what our minds attach to. That’s the story we tell ourselves. We rehearse lists like the one I gave a minute ago, lists of all of the terrible things. We convince ourselves over and over again about how bad things are.

What we know about the brain is that it’s plastic, meaning it shapes and reshapes based on the neural pathways we use the most. What fires together, wires together. It’s as if neural pathways are a groove in the brain, and the more we travel a particular groove, the deeper it gets. So it is so much easier for us to slide right back into old patterns than to do something new. It’s so much easier for us to talk about what’s wrong, and so much harder for us to see and imagine that things are getting better. It takes effort and practice to activate a different set of neural connections, to deepen a different groove.

And here’s where your d’var Torah comes in, Leo. Because good news doesn’t just happen by accident. The path to freedom isn’t a conveyor belt. We have to actually walk through the mud. And you gave us some really important guidance about how to do that. Like Moses holding his hands up for the Israelites to see, we need to inspire each other to believe that victory is possible, that we can make it across the sea, that we can win all that we set our minds to: sustainability, equality, justice, freedom. And when we feel down with the state of the world – with the truly terrible things that happen all around us – as all of us will sometimes, we need to look to each other for courage, as you say Leo, we need to ask for help sometimes, to lean on each other, to be uplifted by each other just as your sweet Lucy did for you.

And yes, I do believe that God is behind all of it. But probably the most famous midrash of all from this parasha is not about God or Moses, but about Nachshon, a regular person who saw that action was needed and walked right into the sea until the waters reached his throat, and that, tradition tells us, is how the sea split open. A regular person saw what needed to be done and did it. That’s what brought on the greatest miracle of all time. And that’s what we all can do too.