Thursday, January 9, 2014

Finding Dry Land in the Midst of Raging Waters

Chances are, if you ever spend any time studying Parashat Beshallach and the Song of the Sea, you'll hear the tale of Nachshon.  In the event you're not familiar with it, or need a refresher, here's the gist:

When the Israelites were leaving Egypt, they reached the shore of the Sea of Reeds.  Looking behind them, they saw the Egyptians were beginning their pursuit; looking in front of them, they saw the raging waters.  Moses stretched out his staff over the waters, as God had instructed him, yet nothing happened.  The scene quickly became chaotic, with everyone shouting at Moses, debating whether to turn back, and sobbing in fear.  Amid this tumult, Nachshon quietly waded into the the waters- first just dipping his toes into the sea, then going in up to his ankles, then his knees.  Gradually, people turned aside from their arguments to view this spectacle.  Nachshon was soon submerged up to his shoulders, then his nostrils.  People were concerned, and began to step into the sea themselves with the intent of rescuing their friend and neighbor.  And it was then, when the people came together as a community, spurred on by Nachshon's faith, that the sea finally parted.
It's a nice midrash about the power of community and the power of faith.  I've been thinking about it also as a metaphor for what some of my friends are experiencing.  Rabbis Phyllis and Michael Sommer, two dear friends and colleagues, are grieving (along with their extended network of family and friends) for their beloved son, Sam, who died in December after battling leukemia.  Sam was 8 years old, just a few weeks younger than my own son.

Phyllis and Michael have written beautiful, raw, honest posts about Sam's diagnosis, treatment, and death.  They share how Sam's illness and death have shaped their family's new reality.  In one of their most recent posts, Phyllis writes about returning to yoga, an activity that she had previously enjoyed, and that Sam had particularly loved.  She talks about the various "triggers" that remind her of Sam, and quotes fitting lyrics of a song that played on the soundtrack at the yoga studio- Sheryl Crow's "Every Day is a Winding Road."

Every day is a winding road
I get a little bit closer
Every day is a faded sign
I get a little bit closer to feeling fine.
So many of us have been inspired by our love for Phyllis, Michael, Sam, and family.  So many of us have been touched by their story and have wanted to do something, anything.  I've chosen to join many of my colleagues in shaving my head at the end of March to raise funds and inspire advocacy for research into childhood cancer.  I've tried many times to sit down and write something to explain my reasoning for doing so.  I certainly understand that my baldness isn't, in and of itself, going to magically create a cure for cancer, and nothing we do will bring Sam back, despite all our fervent wishes that we could do so.

But when Phyllis wrote about Sheryl Crow's winding road, it brought me back to one of my favorite songs that also invokes that image.  Originally written by Bob Russell and Bobby Scott, it was made famous by The Hollies, and later by Neil Diamond.  It's called, "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother."

When a friend is in pain or need, we embrace him, we lift him up, we strive to ensure that he understands that he's not alone (please read "he/she" and "him/her," of course).  This show of solidarity, even if it does not move the needle one iota in the world of scientific research is nevertheless, I believe, a defining characteristic of what it means to be human.

What if we re-imagine the parting of the Sea of Reeds and the story of Nachshon?  What if the sea never actually parted?  What if, instead, the crush of bodies who swooped in to support Nachshon at that pivotal moment served to shield him from the onslaught of the raging waters, keeping him warm and safe and dry when he couldn't do so himself?  What if this worked for the Israelites because they were able to work together collaboratively and support one another as a community, while the mitzrim- the Egyptians, the people from a narrow place- drowned because they couldn't figure out how to work together as a team?

I wish with all my heart that I could heal the pain of people who are grieving; this is not a power that any of us have.  But I can help to surround them with love; I can help them to smile for a moment or two; I can give them room to laugh or cry or scream or reminisce about their loved one.  And maybe, for just a moment, this will provide them with some respite, helping them to find an island of dry land in the midst of the raging waters.

Angelo Bronzino, "Crossing of the Red Sea," 1541-42

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