The Jericho Jewish Center's Red Sea Moment

Dear Rabbi,
Passover is a time that truly leads one to reflect on where he or she is going in terms of observance as a Jew. I grew up in a home where there was strict adherence to what one was to do or more precisely what one was not to do for eight days. I for one did not particularly get along with this holiday given my normal eating habits, but I did what I was told to do. I could have given it up when I “went out on my own” but my upbringing never allowed me even a thought of not giving up certain foods and satisfying what became a greater yearning as the days of Passover went on. By the last day I could not even enjoy some things that were available that I truly enjoyed like chocolate because it all blended into something that I could not wait to be over. As the years have gone by, I thank the fact that I still observe the “rules” of this holiday and the joys that Judaism as a religion gives me. It is with that in mind that I give my thoughts on what we will read on the seventh day of Passover.

The upcoming parshah deals with the seventh day of Passover and the Torah reading relates the plight of the Israelites as they are at the banks of the Red Sea with Pharaoh’s army about to pounce on them. Something I read brought it all home to me which is based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and is as follows:
 “We all know the feeling: you wake up one morning to the realization that the world is not as you would like it to be.

‘A common experience, to be sure, but different people have different reactions. One person embarks upon a quixotic crusade to change the world. A second gives up the world for lost, and retreats into whatever protective walls he can erect around himself and his loved ones. A third takes a pragmatic approach, accepting the world for what it is and doing his best under the circumstances. A fourth recognizes his inability to deal with the situation, and looks to a higher power for guidance and aid.

‘Our forefathers experienced just such a rude awakening on the seventh day after their liberation from Egypt.
‘Ten devastating plagues had broken the might of the Egyptians and compelled them to free the Jewish people. After two centuries of exile and slavery, the children of Israel were headed toward Mount Sinai and their covenant with G‑d. Indeed, this was the stated purpose of the Exodus: as G‑d told Moses, “When you take this nation out of Egypt, you will serve G‑d at this mountain.”

‘But suddenly the sea was before them, and Pharaoh’s armies were closing in from behind. Egypt was alive and well; the sea, too, seemed oblivious to the destiny of the newly born nation.

How did they react? The Midrash tells us that the Jewish people were divided into four camps. There were those who said, “Let us throw ourselves into the sea.” A second group said, “Let us return to Egypt.” A third faction argued, “Let us wage war upon the Egyptians.” Finally, a fourth camp advocated, “Let us pray to G‑d.”

‘Moses, however, rejected all four options, saying to the people, “Fear not; stand by and see the salvation of G‑d which He will show you today. For as you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again, forever. G‑d shall fight for you, and you shall be silent” (Exodus 14:13). ‘“Fear not, stand by and see the salvation of G‑d,” explains the Midrash, is Moses’ response to those who had despaired of overcoming the Egyptian threat and wanted to plunge into the sea. ‘“As you have seen Egypt this day, you shall not see them again” is addressed to those who advocated surrender and return to Egypt. “G‑d shall fight for you” is the answer to those who wished to battle the Egyptians, “and you shall be silent” is Moses’ rejection of those who said, ‘“This is all beyond us. All we can do is pray.”’

‘What, then, is the Jew to do when caught between a hostile mob and an unyielding sea? ‘“Speak to the children of Israel,” G‑d says to Moses in the following verse, “that they should go forward.”’

In a sense, the congregants of the JJC are facing a “Red Sea” moment. We are at a point of our religious lives when we must say good bye to a home we have come to know and love for over sixty five years because we can no longer afford to keep it. Do we “throw ourselves into the sea” and possibly go down with the building? Do we somehow metaphorically “return to Egypt” by going back to a place we were before finding the JJC? Do we somehow “wage war” and fight to keep what we have enjoyed all of these years knowing that the odds are almost impossible? Or do we “we pray to G-d” in the hopes that Devine intervention will somehow let us keep what we have grown very accustomed to?

Personally, I do not think any of those options are possible and we should take the advice given in Exodus 14:13–15 wherein it was stated:

G‑d said to Moses: “Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel, that they should go forward.”  
If we are going to “pray”, let us hope that those that are leading the effort to give us a new home have the combined wisdom of a Moses and show the way for us to “go forward “ to a new “promised land”. 


Dear Mordecai,

I appreciate your honesty about your struggles in youth with the gastronomical requirements of Passover. I myself also suffer during the holiday. i don't even love bread that much, but its non-accessibility wares on me. 
I like the four examples you present of how a person could respond to the reality that the world is not as we would like it to be. They remind me of the four questions and the four children. Frankly, I identify, at least initially, with the first kind of person you identify - the quixotic one. My idealism is one of the defining aspects of my character, and only now am I beginning to seriously rethink how viable an orientation this is. 
The four examples of how people respond to the reality that the world is not as it should be is built upon by the four responses of the Israelites to Pharaoh's cornering them at the Sea of Reeds. The exegesis of Moses' statement in 14:13 is remarkable - classic Rabbinic excellence. 
The transition to the JJC and how this is our Sea of Reeds moment is remarkable and well-executed. 
I am intrigued by the new Promised Land of which you speak. To me, it has ramifications not just for us but for Conservative Judaism and American Jewry at large. One of the ways in which we should think of our Promised Land is with that larger context in mind. What is happening to our congregation is not happening outside of a larger context. The larger context must be understood in order for us to execute on a microlevel our entry into the Promised Land. 
What is Conservative Judaism and what is American Jewry? Conservative Judaism's origins lie in a series of conferences organized in the German states in the 1840s. At this time, the notion of history and historical consciousness was becoming increasingly part of how people thought about themselves. Of course, everyone had known about "the past." History, however, is not the same as the past. As indicated in the very word "history," it is foremost a "story." The past is not simply a time gone by. It is the creator of the present. It is a series of developments that shape the present. Conservative Judaism was shaped in the crucible of historical consciousness. 
In our present moment, we have to possess a strong sense of history if we want to understand our present and shape a future. This is one of the reasons I enjoy your anecdotes of your upbringing. They present a certain kind of historical information. What I encourage you to do and what I would encourage others in our congregation to do individually and collectively is to seek to give narrative shape to this historical information. What will be revealed is both G-d's guidance throughout and the idea of trajectory, direction. Where are we going? 
American Jewry is the greatest experiment in integration in Jewish history. Integration and freedom are intimately connected to each other in the American setting. The central tension in Judaism between the universal and the particular is where more work needs to be done if American Jewry is to flourish. At this juncture, Judaism's universalism has predominated in shaping Jews' behavior and outlook in the American setting. The challenge moving forward is to affirm the particular. The riddle is how can we affirm the particular given that integration is the hallmark of American Jewish life. 
How does this relate to the Jericho Jewish Center and what is its significance for the new entity we hope to form? In other words, how will the Promised Land that we create take into account what we know about Conservative Judaism and American Jewry. I say this because the new entity that will be created as the potential to be a dominant force in Nassau County, which itself is part of the New York metropolitan area - the center of the Jewish diaspora. 
I don't know what our Promised Land looks like, but I know that it will not be a strictly private, local affair. The ramifications are larger and can play a role in shaping our people's collective future. To me, the three central elements of our Promised Land must include 
  1. Remembrance of the Shoah
  2. The embrace of Israel
  3. Shabbat
In these three, we can see the specific Jewish contribution to world history and the formation of humanity - or to put the matter differently: our purpose. 


Dear Rabbi, 
I think your response far exceeds what I was thinking when I put "Promised Land" in quotes. In fact other than urging the JJC to "go forward" I do not know what will become of us but I do know that we have to try and although the "unknown" may be scary, it is my fervent hope that it all works out. Our forefathers in the desert did not know what was to come, yet the the prize of the ultimate "Promised Land" in Jerusalem has always been worth the risk. To me the "form" of Judaism is not important, it is the fact that we are a people that were "chosen" and we should all try to live up to what our religion expects of us.