02 February 2009

I Want the Direct Flight

It happened when Pharaoh sent out the people that God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, because it was near, for God said, “Perhaps the people will reconsider when they see a war, and they will return to Egypt.” (Beshalach, Ex. 13:17)

Having just decided last night to start looking for work opportunities in other places, actually consider and be open to moving instead of just vaguely thinking about it, and spent a significant period of time today updating my resume, I actually laughed when I opened my chumash about thirty minutes ago and discovered that it opens with our ancestors getting out of Dodge. (so to speak)

Then I started checking out the commentaries, and according to Rashi and Ramban, though the quickest and easiest route from Egypt to Israel was northeast, along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, because it was inhabited by the Philistines who were “war-like” our people would lose heart and head back to slavery. Since the journey back to Egypt would seem so easy at that point, returning would be the path of least resistance and that was hardly the point. However, in the very next verse we are told the children of Israel were armed R’ Bachya raises the question of why a people under the protection of God would need to arm themselves, and that does seem a fair question, however, Rashi interprets the word vachamooshim as coming from the same root as chomesh (fifth), implying that only one fifth of the Jews actually left Egypt, the rest being unprepared to adopt a new life as God’s people. Rashi tells us they died during the plague of darkness so the Egyptians would not see that Jews, as well as they, were losing their lives.

As those of you who have read my first few blogs know, although my life is frustrating me to no end right now, I am hardly “in the narrow straights of my own mitzrayim”.

Still, I am struck by what my life and these verses do have in common.

I think it is in the very least ironic that Pharaoh claimed concern at the outset that these folks would rise up against him (military-style) and then here God is concerned that they are so entirely brow-beaten that even though they are armed and even though God is with them they will lack the confidence necessary to travel through the land of the Philistines.

I think I come across to most people as fairly strong-willed, opinionated, and self-confident. I used to be. I think I also seem like someone who would just pick up and move if that’s what I wanted. I used to do that, too.

From the time I was 10 – 18 I moved at least every other year. From 18-25 I lived in 7 states and 2 other countries. Then I moved to where I live now for law school, and although I have lived in 4 different places here they have all been in the same city. I have been here since August 1999.

Even though I want to move on, I want to live somewhere warmer, I want to find a job that doesn’t just keep me really busy doing stuff that I know matters to other people and is meaningful big-picture but a job that feels like a worthwhile application of my time and the abilities that are specific to me . . . I know if I encounter a “war” along the way, it’ll be only too easy this time to turn back. I know because I have been turning back before even starting out for months.

I have not left a place that was familiar to me since I was 10. I loved that place.
It was a farm in southern Missouri. We had two ponds, 17 horses (Arabians), chickens (from whom I collected eggs), a sunflower garden (really, a big area in the field behind our house in which we grew gorgeous sunflowers and then had to beat the birds to the seeds), a smaller vegetable garden that had a lot of chili peppers and other vegetables my mom and I would can in the fall, a dry creek where I’d hang out with turtles, two gay male geese who would nest together every spring and never left our property – and then a flock that would come and go, a barn with a birthing stall that was rarely used (because the horses lived out in the fields and usually gave birth out there as well), dogs and cats, and I had almost talked my mom into letting me get a goat when my parents decided to get divorced and my mom and I moved.

Rashi’s interpretation troubles me. Just because four-fifths of the people decided they could not leave Egypt when one-fifth + Moses, Miriam and Aaron had decided they were ready, why does it follow that they had to die there?

My mind goes in many directions regarding that line of thinking, but here is one of them:

We have to be able to articulate that there are just as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews. Some people fast on Yom Kippur, some go to shul, and some work and go to school. That means some employers and teachers are going to say (every year), “Why do you need a variance/day off? So-and-so is Jewish and he/she will be here, why can’t you be?” I don’t think our way of observance is the measure of our value in the community, and I certainly don’t think any of us should die for those choices.

Or . . .

It just occurred to me . . . or is it that those four-fifths who wanted to leave but were stopped by fear, or inertia, or lack of faith were like dead in another way – stuck in the darkness of the plague, a darkness in which they could not see each other or themselves. When we are not open to the moment when something unknown but promising presents itself in our lives, have we become entrapped by our own lack of vision?

I’m clearly not being oppressed (although I find the weather here oppressive) and I believe the people I work for and with are people of good intention. However, I also feel myself becoming less and less of myself every month.

Some readers have suggested I seek out Orthodox learning opportunities, and others are correct that working in the Jewish community (Reform) means that the times for learning and celebrating are most of the time the same times as I am teaching and running programs. Additionally, while I hunger for more observance, I also want a world-view I have not found in more observant Jewish communities. I want female and male rabbis. I want gay weddings. Whatever the conclusion, I want to be able to question and discuss circumcision (I don’t have a son – but I know if, God willing, I ever do it’ll be a question I want to discuss). I want to be frustrated personally with patrilineal descent (for reasons I raised in an earlier post) and at the same time count my students who are children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother among the Jewish community.

I want these things, but even more than I want them, I want a life I have not been able to find where I am.

In truth, I am well-armed. I don’t want to take the long way around.