The world is a sign, a way of speaking. To find.
What shall we find? Energies, rhythms, journey.
Ways to discover. The song of the way in.
~ Muriel Rukeyser, Akiba
It’s a mess,
But you’re out there
To sort it out.
Cock of the walk,
In great shape,
Keeping the best
Listen, says Kabir,
I have a prayer to make.
I’m handcuffed to death.
Throw me the key
As Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (18th-century Hasidic leader) counseled, when you are about to leave “mitzrayim” you should not worry about how you will manage in a new “place.” Anyone who does or who stops to get everything in order for the journey will never pick himself or herself up.
~ Lesli Koppelman Ross, Self-Liberation
Here I sit, in my 21st century mess. Apparently, I’m out here to sort it out. I have a prayer to make. I’m rattling the keys to my own handcuffs. I thought I was free, forgetting that freedom also meant wandering in the desert and eating the bread of affliction, knowing only that we were no longer enslaved in Egypt, Mitzrayim, that narrow place. First there was slavery, then the plagues and the Exodus. We may have been comfortable, but we were not free.
When finally Miriam and Moses led us through the parted waters, we did not just find our home. We found a vast desert, the vast sky, the stars our guides. There was no plan per se. Faith and keeping moving must have been our only salvation. But there was also no longer a Pharaoh and we were no longer strangers within unforgiving borders. Just open space and no roadmap. No roads, for that matter. Sheer exposure to the elements, bandits maybe, and surrender to the unknown in the name of liberation. Expectations are a set-up for disappointment, worse, a sense of failure. Did the Jews expect to leave Egypt and check in to a five-star hotel on the beach? No. Were they grateful simply to be free from slavery, even with no guarantees of a homeland, a future? What am I to take from this story today, out here to sort out the mess of my own deliverance?
Yes, it’s a night to ask questions. Why is this night different? It is no wonder the children are the question-askers; it is through them that we can see anything as new. Each year, the questions are the same. The story is the same. We tell and retell the same story to remember our origins, to apply this journey to our world, our times, our messes and our plagues, our Egypts and our deserts. It will be many, many cold nights huddled together before we stand at the base of Sinai, before we receive our Torah, our book, the written stories that we will then take into the Promised Land, committed to living them, remembering them, wrestling with our God.
My God. God of my mothers and fathers, God of my grandmothers and grandfathers, God of mystery and facelessness, God of erasure and God of revelation—lead me home. I have wandered enough. Is this mine to decide? Or am I still enslaved by the narrow passageways of my own mind, a maze of alleys and cramped spaces with no outlets? Am I still enslaved by the limitations of my imagination? Am I standing on the edge of the desert, unable to go back and scared to move forward? Am I at a stand-still?
The waters break. A child is born. A baby cries. The water parts. The water that would swallow me whole. Two nights ago, I dreamed I was in a glass-enclosed canoe in rough waters. There were others; I was not alone. I felt the tipping, the canoe on edge, felt it turning and then suddenly it did, it turned upside-down. We were encompassed by water. I realized what was happening and knew not to panic. I held my breath calmly, very slowly releasing it, knowing all I could do was wait—to drown or to surface.
It’s not an option to stop breathing, nor will panic lead to anything but certain death. In this story we tell, the water parts. In my dream, it closed in instead. Bigger than me, beyond my control. The only thing I could control in the dream was my breath. My reaction.
The stars here at night are brilliant. I am with my people. I am a child and a mother. I see my husband across the way. He is building a fire. But I am sitting with the women. I see red, red everywhere—the blood of the firstborn on the doorposts we fled under cover of darkness. I am haunted by this.
A child cries out. I take her in my arms and comfort her until she is asleep in my embrace. An older woman holds me. We nestle all night, the generations of life-givers together. The men make fires and pray. We are one under these cold, bright stars. We are free, but lost. Not all who wander are lost, reads the bumpersticker. The journey is my home, writes Muriel Rukeyser.
We have nothing to write with so we paint the stories with our voices. We tell stories in the morning and we tell stories in the evening. We walk. We keep moving. We sleep and get up at first light. The bread of our affliction, the bread of leaving in a hurry. The bread of escape, of courage, of flight, of no guarantees and no time to waste. The bread of haste will have to sustain us.
I look at the handcuffs around my wrists. Where is the key? Where is the key? Throw me the key, mother. Throw me the key, father. Throw me the key, sister. Throw me the key, brother. Throw me the key, child, with your innocent questions, your wise questions, your wicked questions, and you, the child who does not even know how to ask. She who does not speak.
If the journey is my home, I had better get comfortable walking. We left so much behind but this desert is ours to wander, and the promise of the mountain holds. We have no choice now but to trust our inner bearings, consult our God, pray for direction to the words that will deliver us and give us our names.
Yes, I have had many names. Jennifer Kim Schwartz. Jena Renner Schwartz. Jena Renner Strong. Chava. Mama. I have been enslaved by the Pharaoh of self-judgment, a resident alien in the Egypt of self-doubt and endless searching. I have walked and I have wandered and I have been fooled by the guise of preconceived notions. I have been naïve and occasionally wise, all the while looking for the base of the mountain where I may already be standing, waiting. Waiting for what? Keep counting the days, says the voice of compassion. Keep counting the nights. Have faith. This is your story, too. Yes, lie down at night to rest your body. Pray to your God. Rest the mind. Still the thoughts. And then get up again and keep moving.
I will not forsake you. I, who led you and your people out of bondage, will not abandon you now. You are my children and I am your God.
A Child of God, I am small and at your mercy. Fill me to brimming with awe at the beauty of the world. Give me the strength to see what fires need building and what fires need extinguishing. Help me see that I am a member of your People, not a lone traveler in the very open space I longed for. Help me honor those who didn’t make it this far.
The story doesn’t change, but we change. Stanley Kunitz wrote, I am not done with my changes. To think I ever thought I would be! To think I would be confused by the fact that I am wandering in this desert of supposed freedom! To think of my own impatience! It seems absurd. Misguided at best, arrogant at worst. Here, throw me the keys. Let me leave these shackles in the hot sand. There is nothing confusing about that.
Alone, together. Family, strangers. Cover of darkness. Keeper of light. Help me stay in the light. Help me trust the night. Help me move through this desert and find my way home.
May all who are enslaved become free.
May all who suffer find solace.
May all who weep release their sadness and find rest.
May all whose hearts are hardened find softness.
May all who wander find a little village with welcoming lights and open doors and an extra seat at the table.
May all who are strangers come to have names.
May all who are hungry eat.
May all who are thirsty drink.
May all who are afraid find courage.
May all who are hiding coming out into safety.
May all who are needy receive.
May all who are greedy open their hands.
May all who alive breathe.
This is me. This is you. This is all of us, today and all days, under the mantle of stars. May I come to stand at Sinai with an open and humbled heart.
And let us say, Amen.
Images: “Exodus,” “Miriam’s Dance,” and “Mishpatim” by Michael Bogdanow