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Finding Our Spiritual Center

January 1, 2024


Rabbi Nathan Martin

Friends, we begin January by also beginning the book of Exodus, the core story of liberation that animates us as a Jewish people. It is a story we refer to every day in our daily prayer when we sing the “Mi Kamocha.”

As we cope with the Hamas attack of October 7, and the ensuing Gaza war and its repercussions around the world, I have been wondering about what the spiritual teachings are that we can glean from our liberation story that might be useful for this time?

In one sense, it could be easy to place Hamas in the role of the hard‐hearted Pharaoh wanting to rid Egypt of its Jews, the Egyptian bystanders as innocent Gazans caught up as collateral damage in the plague of war, and perhaps the hostages as the ancient Jews hoping for release and freedom.

But I know that the reality is more complex than this.

I know that I find myself pained by the precarious existence of the captured hostages and not knowing how many are still alive, along with the awful toll of the tremendous loss of lives of Gazan civilians in this conflict. And like you, I continue to pray for peace and a path towards the ending of this spasm of violence that leaves Israel more secure from any Hamas threat, but that also gets much needed aid and support (and eventual rebuilding) to Gaza. And I wish I knew what political arrangement will work to allow for a more peaceful coexistence on this border.

With such limited ability for me to influence political and military events in Israel, I turn to another aspect of Exodus Torah that may be useful at this moment.

The Hasidic masters often reinterpreted the plagues not only as a physical event, but more as a spiritual struggle for the Israelites to emerge from a state of mind where they were distant from and not aligned with the Divine. Egypt is our exile from our spiritual centers.

This perspective on Exodus calls to me at this moment. When we are not grounded as Jews and human beings we are likely to be more reactive, less patient, and less compassionate. And like the Jews living in ancient Egypt in our sacred story, there are many oppressions bearing down on us at this moment — a feeling of isolation from the international community, a growing fear of rising antisemitism, a contending with the potential erosion of democracy in our country, and a growing sense of unease as we feebly contend with planetary challenges that could redraw the global map of where humans live in the next century.

What brings us back to our center?

In teaching about the process of spiritual redemption the Netivot Shalom, R. Shalom Noah Berzovsky, focuses on the amorphous cries and groans of the Israelites under the weight of slavery as being the beginnings of liberation. He draws this teaching from Ex. 2:24, “God heard their moaning.” Even before finding words of prayer, the Israelites with their moaning still articulated a deep sense of pain, loss, and isolation which triggered a response from the Divine. We too are in a moment of deep pain and loss, of fear and distress. And perhaps the first step to alignment is even pre‐verbal; perhaps it is recognizing and simply sitting with the tremendous pain we are experiencing. A cry may be a sufficient prayer at this time.

Additionally, it is important to remember that the exodus narrative focuses on the formation of a new people. The strength of our ability to withstand the constriction we currently face in the world lies in our ability to stay connected and supportive of one another. We need to keep working the “muscles” of listening and compassion, perhaps starting with friends, family, or fellow BI’ers before venturing out into the wider world. The degree that we can hear and respond to each other's cries is what can move us along the path of compassion. This too is the work of leaving our narrow places of Egypt.

Finally, our story of liberation is one of big vision. I had the privilege once of having dinner with Desmond Tutu when I served as a Hillel Rabbi in Michigan. Bishop Tutu noted that the most radical weapon that the South African liberation movement used was the Bible and the story of Exodus because it planted the seed of belief in the worth and dignity of all. We have to hold onto a bigger vision of what long‐term liberation for both Israelis and Palestinians could look like, even in this moment. What would it mean for each to have a national home even if we don’t know what that looks like politically? What would it mean for collaborative economies to grow? After the current conflict, this may be a generation away after trust can be rebuilt, but it is still incumbent to keep reaching for and cultivating visions of the possible.

So, as we re‐enter this moment of our exodus narrative, may we take the time to acknowledge our pain, to stay connected with each other, and to hold a big picture of the possible in an impossible time.

Fri, June 21 2024 15 Sivan 5784