I am the daughter of Black writers, who are descended from Freedom Fighters who broke their chains and changed the world. They call me.
– Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate
If you missed her during last week’s Presidential Inauguration, Amanda Gorman’s poetry stole the show. What’s amazing to me is that the youngest poet to speak at a presidential inauguration has a speech impediment. And she says the mantra above – which she recites before speaking publicly – is what gives her the strength and courage to use her voice.
What if she didn’t use her voice because of a lisp? What if Moses used the same justification and didn’t stand up to Pharaoh? Would we still be slaves?
In this week’s Torah portion, BeShalach, our ancestors go free.
After 430 years of slavery and dignity violations, their deliverance comes about through wonders and miracles and God’s outstretched arm against Pharaoh. The chains are broken, and Pharaoh finally admits defeat and casts out the Israelites.
Way to go, Moses!
Yet according to rabbinic legend, only 20% followed him out of Egypt. That’s only one out of every five people!!! Eighty percent stayed behind! The majority were too habituated to imagine a better life for themselves and their progeny. They were too accustomed to their slave mentality to brave a new life in the wilderness.
I am deeply troubled by that figure. It seems unimaginable to me that the majority of our ancestors refused to leave. After all the marvels, the plagues and the bitterness of slavery, so many refused to hope in something better. So many refused to change.
And it appeared that God knew that the journey to the promised land would not be easy. In fact, God deliberately made the Israelites traverse a long and winding route in order to ensure that we would be battle tested:
Now when Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt” (Exodus 13:17)
There is no shortcut or easy path to freedom. And yet, we must never return to Egypt; we must never return to our smaller selves, a less dignified form of who we are capable of being.
No matter what we face, we must continue to march forward. There is no turning back!
And when it seems like there is no more room for us to march… When we are filled with dread because an army advances behind us and the sea blocks our path forward… We continue to march. Kadima! Onward!
And Moses said to the people, “Have no fear! Stand by, and witness the deliverance which the LORD will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today you will never see again. The LORD will battle for you; you be silent!” Then the LORD said to Moses, “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. (Exodus 14:14-16).
I’ve always been amazed at this idea: that God will wage war for us, and our task is to remain silent. The Hebrew is literally telling us to “be mute.” Stand back and let God handle it. There is an element of surrender, of letting go of control. Stop crying out and worrying so much; there is another way forward – by embracing a Higher Power.
There is another rabbinic legend about how the seas split: after hearing God’s command to march into the sea, the people hesitate to advance. But Nachshon ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Judah, wades into the water. It is only once the waters reach his neck and cover his mouth that the sea splits.
It wasn’t Moses’ outstretched arm, or being silent; it was Nachshon taking the next right action.
Just when we think there is no other way out, when it appears we can hold on no longer and we’re at the brink of our capacity, there is relief. There is openness and possibility, like waters splitting.
While many of those who came before us refused to leave Egypt and refused to change, I throw my lot in with the select few who were willing to traverse uncharted lands, seas, and the depths of their own souls. I am bound to those who were willing to move forward without knowing if everything was going to be okay and without having a plan, but believed in God and were willing to swim through the seas, if need be, to get to the other side.
To leave Egypt. To change. Our Torah and our national youth poet laureate urge us to use our voices. To use our feet, and break the chains of slavery. To use everything in our power. And “letting go and letting God” is part of that strength.
So who do we come from? Whose shoulders do we stand on?
We come from a band of non-conforming God-wrestlers who fought for human dignity. From a small group of rebels and misfits who confronted the false idols of their parents and stood up to the pharaohs of their generation. From a people filled with fear and complaints and who began to believe in miracles and chose God. From a people who failed and forgot and missed the mark repeatedly, but who returned to God’s outstretched and loving embrace.
We come from a small but mighty nation who began their long walk to freedom through the wilderness. A journey that, generations later, I continue in the hopes that my children and my children’s children may one day reach the promised land.
They call me.