One winter day in Plattsburgh, NY, as I was driving and listening to an audio-book, a line of text caught my attention.
The book was called “The Dove Keepers” by Alice Hoffman. It’s a fictional account of a group of women who survive the Roman sack of Jerusalem, and come to live with the rebels on the mountain called Masada.
The line that caught my attention was this: “our lives our shaped by our sorrows.”
At first, I found myself agreeing. I could look back at my own life and easily trace how it has been affected by various losses, broken hearts and disappointments. Even though I believe that suffering can often (but not always) have value, and that the heard-knocks in life make us stronger, I couldn’t help thinking back on the different low points in my personal history and seeing the shape that my life has taken accordingly.
I found myself nodding my head along as I thought it over.
Our lives are shaped by our sorrows.
But over the next few days I found myself mulling over it. Even though I had agreed with it initially, something was gnawing at me. I felt like I was missing something. When I sat down to read through the portion of the week, B’shalach, which is also this week’s parasha, I began to see things differently.
It is within Parashat B’shalach that the Israelites are finally set free.
Pharaoh let’s them go, then chases them down. The sea parts. God ‘s mighty hand is stretched out. The Israelites cross to freedom. They praise God. They experience the miracles of water coming from rocks and of manna falling from the sky.
It is a high point in our history.
Actually, it is THE high point in our history.
In Plattsburgh, one of my rabbinic responsibilities was to teach the Introduction to Judaism course at the college. Since there’s a lot of Judaism to fit into just one semester, only one class was able to be devoted to Jewish history. It’s a lot to fit into three hours, so we only focused on the most important moments; the moments that have shaped the beliefs and practices of the Jewish people.
Often, when we study Judaism’s history, it can seem like the defining for our people was the destruction of the Second Temple. After all, that event transitioned us from a sacrificial cult –tied to one special location – to a religion of prayer and mitzvot, that can be adhered to in any place, at any time.
If we determine that the destruction of the Temple was the defining moment in Jewish History, we can agree that “our lives are shaped by our sorrows.”
After all, much of Rabbinic Judaism centers around mourning the Temple and preparing for a time when it can be rebuilt. But Parashat B’shalach reminds us that there’s more to it.
When I teach the important moments in Jewish history – at SUNY Plattsburgh or anywhere else – I don’t start with the destruction of the Second Temple. I start with The Exodus.
In the textbook I used with my college students, our textbook referred to the episode of the Exodus as “the Redemptive Event of the Jewish People”. I asked my students what they thought that meant. At first, they didn’t answer, unsure of how to define a redemptive event.
So I asked them: What was the Redemptive Event in the history of African Americans?
“The Emancipation Proclamation!” one student called out. “The Civil Rights Movement!” another ventured.
And just as those moments forever changed the history of African Americans, so too did the Exodus forever alter the Children of Israel.
Even though much of Jewish tradition is shaped by our sorrows, much of it is also shaped by our triumphs. Chanukah, which we celebrated a few months ago, and Purim, which is a few months ahead, are both celebratory in nature, as is Passover.
So it’s not all bad.
Our religion is not only shaped by our sorrows. And if Judaism isn’t just shaped by its sorrows, then it stands to reason our lives aren’t either.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized the power in the message of how our religion is structured.
I thought about how Orthodox Judaism, which so often dwells on the sorrows of our people, is one of the smallest Jewish denominations, even though they have many more children than liberal and secular Jews.
I also thought about how Passover is the one holiday that secular and disaffiliated Jews are most likely to celebrate. The message of freedom and hope is so much stronger – so much more attractive – than the message of grief and mourning.
Our lives can’t just be shaped by our sorrows, any more than our religion could.
If Judaism was only a sad, dark religion, it would not have survived until today…But at the same time, it also would not have survived just based on its celebrations.
I once had a conversation with a non-practicing Jew who told me that even though he felt strongly that religion was the cause of many problems in the world, he couldn’t completely eschew his Jewish identity.
“I don’t really understand why,” he said, “but I always come back to the idea that so many people died for the sake of their Judaism. There must be something important about it. Who am I to renounce what so many of my ancestors died for?”
In our parsha, God brings the Israelites into freedom, only to begin immediately pelting them with hardship. At first, there is no food or water. Then they are attacked by Amalekites. “Why would God bring us into the desert to die?” They ask Moses.
Moses doesn’t answer them, but the history of the Jewish people speaks for itself: Our suffering makes the miracles all the more profound. Our suffering makes our victories – few and far between though they may be – all the more sweet.
Judaism is shaped by our sorrows and our blessings. So too, our lives.
May each of us this week, recognize the joys and pains that shape our lives, and may we be wise enough to thank God for them both.
Kein Yehi Ratzon.