August 12, 2016 / Noa Kushner
In the Reeds
We are in Devarim (5th book of the Torah), and we are gathered around our great teacher who will know will not be here forever.
Moshe rabbeinu, our teacher, is telling us the story of what has happened to us so far.
And he begins by listing some places we’ve been and if you just read the translation, it sounds like a bunch of random names: B’midbar, Suf, Di-zahav… but if we look a little more closely (and remember this is Torah, and words matter in Torah and this is not just Moshe hanging out talking about his vacation by the water cooler, but a big, big speech before he dies) we realize that these names of these places could also mean more: “Midbar” is then a spiritual category, “the wilderness.”
And Di-zahav I would loosely translate as, “Enough already with the gold.”
We realize Moshe is not just recounting physical locations, he’s taking us through some kind of spiritual map by naming these places. Di-zahav — connected to our grand mistake of building the golden calf, of course.
And so I want to look more closely at a particular name on this list:
We went through the wilderness, in the aravah, the plains, mul suf, in front of “suf.”
So what is suf? Where is it?
Maybe the word rings a bell. Suf means, “reeds.”
As in the same word Torah uses for the place where Moshe was placed as a baby.
Remember? He was placed in a basket by his mother to save his life and put in the suf by the banks of the river — only to be discovered a bit later b’toch ha suf, in those same reeds by Pharoah’s daughter who rescues him from that river.
Suf also reminds us of the place where Jonah cries out, when he has been swallowed by the whale and he is praying to god from the bottom of the sea. In a whale, at the bottom of the sea, in the darkest of darkness. He prays, “Suf chavush l’roshi, the sea reeds have entwined my head.”
There is a sense in both stories of being underneath, hidden. And in both stories the situations are precarious (even the chances of being saved in a basket doesn’t sound like something with great odds), and in both stories there is a release and a relief. A redemption. Moshe is drawn out from the water and lives. Jonah is saved, God commands the whale to spit him out onto dry land.
Maybe some of us here tonight have a sense of being in a fragile basket, precariously balanced on these sufim, amongst these reeds.
Perhaps they’re caught in our hair.
Maybe we had nothing to do with how we got in the reeds, we were innocent like Moshe, or maybe we were complicit like Jonah who ran away, either way, we are here tonight because we pray to have the courage, the help to enter the next chapter of our lives. To be blessed to get another chapter. And in Moshe’s recounting, maybe being mul suf, in front of the reeds, represents a time of vulnerability. Like we were babies in a basket. And let’s add, desperate and powerless, like Jonah at the bottom of the bottom. It was a part of our spiritual journey worth recounting. A necessary stop on the road.
But there is more, because, in Torah, there’s always more.
Suf is inseparable from yam suf, which just happens to be the famous sea of reeds,
Which just happens to be the sea we had to cross, the sea — depending on who you read — we had to split or God split or Moshe split or all any combination thereof — but everyone agrees yam suf had to be split in order for us to be free.
So, yes, for those of you keeping track, Moshe seems to be saved out of that same concept of suf, yam suf, not one time but twice: first when he was a baby in a basket and second when he was on his own two feet leaving Egypt for good. This is important, even Moshe is not saved or freed once but rather over and again.
So maybe Moshe is bringing up suf here in his speech not to be like a triple A or Thomas Guides (for those of you from LA back in the day) or to be some kind of ancient WAZE.
But rather Moshe is signaling with this one word that he is telling us our most important story. Yes, we need to know our origins, that’s part of it, but more than that, as we become our own people we need to know that the spiritual state of “passing through reed-ville,” of crossing the sea, this is not something that happened once upon a time, a long time ago. Moshe is teaching us, Torah is teaching us, this is something that happens over and again.
And lest we think this is a flattering reference to who we are and our stalwart insistence on freedom, Rashi teaches that mul suf is specifically a reference to a humiliation in a string of embarrassments referring to when we came to the Sea of Reeds (where one of the greatest miracles of all time was taking place) only to say to Moses, “Is it because there are not graves in Egypt (that you took us out to the wilderness to die)?! We had zero faith. (Rashi to Exodus).
And even when we traveled from within the Sea, the sea is open (as it says in Talmud, Arachin 15a) we were only worried about who was still chasing us.
So I think this is Moshe’s way of teaching us, not how great we were, as he prepares to die, but that we will have to leave the narrow places, we will be stuck in the reeds more than once. So when that happens, if (when!) we have moments of total collapse and melt-down while in those places, there is nothing we could do that would be any worse than what we’ve already done.
And look how it ended before, not so terrible: Just as we were enslaved in Egypt, so we have also been to the promised land, we have tasted the milk and honey, no matter how much we complained and lost faith in moments along the way, we still learned, we learned the difference between slavery and freedom, that is our story.
“That is your story!” says Moshe as her prepares to leave us, “Don’t forget!” For above all Moshe wants us to remember the difference between being enslaved, and “facing the reeds” / crossing the sea / being in the process of leaving, because both can be equally terrifying but there is a qualitative difference between the two. It is possible that the whole Torah hinges on this difference.
And our tradition underscores our learning of this difference — we are given the opportunity to go through the sea again and again, out, not just once a year while eating matzah either. It is in our prayerbook, it is in the mi chamocha said daily, it is in Kiddush, and my friend and colleague R. Sharon Brous showed me a text from the Slonimer rebbe where he says that the purpose of every Shabbat is for us to truly know and experience going from a state of slavery to freedom. From being stuck to trying to leave. Not just then, but now.
Because Moshe knows if our prayers are going to materialize into anything out of this room and into our lives and the communities around us, we have to know how to identify narrowness and slavery not as something new and unfathomable, but something we have experienced many times, something have already found the courage to face, so that no matter what mask the current darkness wears, a pretty one or a brutal one, we know it and can call it by a name. Our ability to say, “We have been here before, we know this place,” and “We know how to face this kind of moment,” this one of the last gifts Moshe gives to us, hidden in this list of seemingly innocent coordinates.
Finally, the Or hachayyim suggests that maybe mul suf, to be facing the reeds is rather to be read: mul sof / in front of, facing one’s sof, one’s end, one’s death.
Maybe knowing the fact that our death is non negotiable, Or hachayyim says, maybe that helps us to see what we want to be in life.
As if Moshe were saying to us, “I cannot protect you forever, I will not even live forever myself, but I’m telling you, link your life to these spiritual places and these stories and you will see you are part of a much greater light, and you will find the courage to do what needs to be done.