Moving Through This Crash

by Lauren Tuchman, SVARA Fellow

Two people are seated at a table in the bet midrash. The table is filled with SVARA learning materials and a blue water bottle is set amid them. The person at right is fully visible, with a shaved head, dark brown beard, wearing a white button-down with pends in the pocket and glasses. They are reading from an open masechet set on a shtender. The person at left is partially visible and wearing a black and white plaid flannel shirt open with a black tshirt beneath.

The central grand story of the Jewish tradition is undoubtedly the Exodus from Egypt. We remember our experience moving from degradation to praise every Passover and recall the Exodus in the traditional liturgy twice daily and every time Kiddush is made, sanctifying holy time. Often when this central story is referenced, the focus is on the symbolism of moving from the narrows to a place of great expanse. When I encounter this narrative being retold, there is often a gap between the simplistic manner in which its themes are used and the complex, multi-layered experience the Torah recounts and we each experience in our own lives. It is a narrative filled with boundless love and equally powerful fear. It is a text I return to again and again at this time of tremendous rupture and grief. When the waves of grief threaten to engulf me completely, when I feel constricted and restricted, I find in this story the complex landing place I need.

The most powerful part of the narrative, for me, is what happens immediately after our Israelite ancestors have crossed the Sea of Reeds, a tremendous miracle in their time which the Jewish tradition invites us to recall daily.

Upon crossing the Sea of Reeds, the people begin to express fear and displeasure. Where is all of the garlic and leeks we enjoyed in the Land of Egypt? Will there be enough to eat? As the Torah describes in Exodus 16:1-3

“Setting out from Elim, the whole Israelite community came to the wilderness of Sin, which is between Elim and Sinai, on the fifteenth day of the second month after their departure from the land of Egypt. 

In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. 

The Israelites said to them, “If only we had died by the hand of G-d in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.”

It has been just a month since the exodus and the Israelites find themselves in a place of grasping, yearning for the familiar. The splitting of the sea forgotten; the Israelites are caught in a cycle so many of us know intimately. Change is so hard, and one can only imagine that this is even more true for those who have been deprived of agency over their time, as had our ancestors.

When I first found myself entering a SVARA bet midrash and being introduced to the crash theory, I noticed myself resting in the realization that we’ve been here before. What arose out of that crash was multi-layered. Many of us didn’t make it. Some of us knew the old narratives had crumbled but not all was lost. That is who determined to move with and through the crash—though I can only imagine the enormity of their fear and uncertainty had to determine what could be recreated anew so that we could journey forward with some sort of contiguity.

Returning to our Israelite ancestors, in response to their frustration, G-d tells Moses that G-d will rain down manna from the sky to see if the people will have the requisite trust to go out and gather it. On Fridays, the people will receive a double portion, enough to cover Shabbat. In this way, the people will know in their bones that it was G-d who brought them out of Egypt, that they need not fear nor strive for control that is so often out of reach.

At a time of tremendous uncertainty and anger, many of us find ourselves ceaselessly striving for certainty and control. Though we know deep down there are no guarantees, the future before us feels so perilous and the present so unbearable that it is understandable that we are doing all we can to create some semblance of certainty. We get caught in story and in assigning blame. Interestingly, the Torah notes that in his recounting of G-d’s instructions to the people, Moses reminds the people multiple times that G-d heard their grumblings and is responding with bounty. “Please don’t complain to me,” Moses implores. “I didn’t bring you all out here in this wilderness to starve,” I imagine him continuing. “You were the beneficiaries of a great miracle.”

Yet, this is not congruous with the people’s subjective experience. Taken from Egypt, a land of tremendous hardship—yes—but also routine—the people are experiencing change that they cannot process. Their lives have been thrown off course. When the ground beneath them feels more like quicksand than anything rock solid, it is understandable that the people want to blame and do away with the source of their distress. Before the people can turn towards, they try to turn away.

And so, too, do we.  When we imagine what the future could be, we may find ourselves returning to well-worn patterns of restriction and constriction, as if the fear and grief is literally choking us.

Just as our ancestors worried that there wouldn’t be enough sustenance in the wilderness, so, too, do we fear—often with tremendous justification—that there won’t be enough sustenance for us in this moment or maybe ever. Belonging is at the core of what it is to be human. What happens when our sense of the familiar shifts, when we begin to wonder where and how we belong?

In the wilderness, our ancestors, after much aversion, and after asking “what is this?” came towards and satisfied their physical, and dare I also say spiritual hunger. Yet, the Torah also makes clear that some didn’t. Some didn’t follow the instructions not to leave the manna over till morning lest it become inedible. Those who did not gather their portion soon found that what had been provided wouldn’t satisfy.

The crash that created rabbinic Judaism as we know it wasn’t linear. It was a tremendous act of trust in the power of this deep and complex tradition to carry us forward when the structures that had kept it going crumbled entirely. The bottom had fallen out. The axis mundi—spiritual center of the cosmos—was destroyed. The subsequent Bar Kochva rebellion—our people’s last-ditch attempt to stand up to Rome—failed. Our people were left without an obvious anchor.

Humans crave story. It’s how we order our lives and root ourselves. We wouldn’t be here without story. However, story can constrict—can narrow our thinking. Story can also encourage hitlamdut—beginner’s mind, curious mind—an approach to learning we cherish at SVARA. Or it can create the polar opposite—incuriosity and certainty. In my own life and practice, this latter tendency shows up as a hardened heart, uninterested in opening myself to feeling into others’ experiences. It feels almost like an inner fortress. When I find myself in this hardened place, I notice myself looking for input that will strengthen that part of me. I have to actively choose to pause, gather myself and redirect so I can return with a bit more softness, even if only for a moment. When I am finally able after any length of time to re-center, I notice that expansiveness can allow me to imagine that even as our current structures crumble, something new can emerge. Somatically, I feel into a sense of lightness and greater ease. Reveling in that even as I know it too will arise and pass helps me remember that sensation is here, too, when the hardness returns.

Just as our rabbinic ancestors knew that newness does not mean discontinuity, perhaps we will have the courage to tenderly take our beloved tradition into the unknown.

Our ancestors in the wilderness experientially learned that even as the old crumbled, all was not lost. Sustenance was there all along if they only opened to it. None of this is easy. In my own experience, it’s a step forward and three steps back on a good day. That one step forward, if I allow myself to dwell there for a moment, can help build the foundation for the next step and still the next.

May we tenderly move through this narrow time together, holding one another with tremendous love. At such a time as this, we tend to discard, separate, and shut down. Even when it is unbearably hard, may we each find in whatever ways work for us just a bit more spaciousness, a bit more tenderness. May that radiate outward towards others and, most importantly, may it fill us inwardly.

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