The words from a Pete Seeger song flooded my mind this week:
Step by step the longest march,Can be won can be won.Many stones can form an arch,Singly none, singly none.And by union what we will,Can be accomplished still,Drops of water turn a mill,Singly none, singly none.
The words are from the preamble to the 1863 constitution of the American Mineworkers Association, and Pete Seeger adapted an Irish song for the melody in 1948.
On the heels of so much chaos in Washington – alternative facts, executive orders, punitive tweets, confirmation hearings, and even a silenced senator – I try to harness my energy and situate myself in a parallel moral universe. A friend said, “Can you believe it’s only 2 weeks/4,000 years?”
I was thinking about this sentiment when I opened the text of Parashat Beshalah. This portion tells of the dramatic exodus from Egypt following devastating slavery, the final of the 10 plagues, the climactic parting and crossing of the Sea of Reeds by the Israelites, their celebration upon reaching the other side, and their initial challenges of being free people.
The text begins with the verse, “When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was the nearer (ki karov hu)…” (Exodus 13:17) Upon leaving Egypt, there were two possible routes to the Promised Land: through the Land of the Philistines, a nearer and perhaps easier route; and through the wilderness, the harder and farther route. Commentators note that the Israelites needed to shed their slave mentality and learn how to be a free people, and that the way to the Promised Land was not going to be a straight shot, without challenges or disappointments. The text reminds us that the precious milestones and achievements we have reached on the winding path of life are often the hardest fought.
On a personal level, each of us has likely experienced our own Egypt, and if we haven’t yet, we know life will possibly deal us inevitably difficult moments and experiences on our way into the future. If everything we have came easily, would we appreciate its value? It is not to overstate the value of suffering, only to recognize that struggle often yields its own reward.
On a national level, nothing we have ever achieved came without determined effort and perseverance. As I witnessed rabbinic colleagues in conjunction with T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, get arrested for protesting against the immigration ban this week, I understood anew that every step on the journey to liberation can deepen the ultimate value of the quest.
There have been heroic voices in the last few weeks: Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Susan Susan Collins and Senator Lisa Murkowski, and Washington Judge James Robart, to name a few. Each of them made a decision that the “nearer way” of acquiescence and silence, would ultimately not make the journey any less challenging in the long term.
The Israelites faced an uncertain future but knew there was no turning back. Redemption did give way to revelation, as Sinai was on the further path taken by the newly freed, mixed multitude of individuals on the way to becoming a people. Their diversity did give way to unity, and they were instructed to listen to, and for, the Oneness that links all that is. That is the ultimate meaning for me of the verse in the song: Drops of water turn a mill, Singly none singly none. Remembering and then transforming the meaning of our “Egypt” – whether ancient or modern, personal or political - and the hard road to promise, is not only crucial to our spiritual lives, it is vital to our humanity. However long or difficult the road before us, we can each make the journey towards the promised, step by step, on the march to redemption and revelation.