Yizkor Service Sermon from Cantor Katzman

You may be familiar with the Biblical character Nachshon.  We know little about him from the Torah other than his lineage and station.  It was a Midrash that catapulted this obscure character to enduring popularity.  The rabbis of old credit him with leading the Children of Israel into the parting waters of the Sea of Reeds during the exodus from Egypt.  They imagine that the Israelites were paralyzed with fear, and that Moses, halted by the watery depths confronting them, seemed unable to move them toward safety.  Nachshon alone plunged into the water, says the Talmud, and THAT’S when the sea began to part.  In a moment of abject terror, Nachshon was able to move forward and bring everyone else with him. There is an old Jewish expression:  “Be Nachshon.”  Be the first one to step up and get others moving in the right direction.  To be able to martial that kind of inspiration and courage requires an array of qualities.  One essential characteristic is the ability to see clearly what is at hand.

Dr. Sylvia Boorstein, the psychotherapist, meditation teacher, and whimsical Jewish grandmother relates:

“Look with your own eyes and you’ll see,” my mother would say when I, as a child, protested that I couldn’t find something…something in plain view.  I always laughed.  Who else’s eyes, after all, could I have looked with?  Or, indeed, what, other than eyes (nose? ears?) could I have looked with?  I did not know—and neither did my mother, I’m sure—that ‘Look with your own eyes and you’ll see’ is from Psalm 91:8, rak b’einekha tabit…Even without knowing the particular teaching, or its source,” she continues,” I got the larger sense of the phrase:  It is possible to walk around in a life, eyes open as if awake, and still miss what most needs to be seen and what is in plain view…My own experience is that paying attention makes me grateful and intentional and careful and inspired about living.”    Mindful Jewish Living, Jonathan Slater, p. vii-viii

Traumas, losses, and childhood patterns adhere to the lenses through which we struggle to see. Instead of seeing what IS, we see what we expect to see, or what we WANT to see, or what we most fear.  We have difficulty adjusting our eyes to a world and a life constantly in motion.  A few weeks ago my husband and I accompanied our twins to their respective colleges, helping them settle into their freshman dorms.  Leaving each of them to fend for himself was a mixture of excitement, pride, and terror.  After all, the faces of these two young men are sometimes obscured by the image of the infant giving us his first smile, the toddler taking his first steps, the Bar Mitzvah boy getting his first suit, and the anguished adolescent trying to make his way through the intricacies of the middle school social scene.

How do we train ourselves to see clearly through the fog of hopes, fears, ambitions, and projections?  We can look for the truth within through meditation or prayer, finding ways to settle our minds and give our overactive imaginations a rest.  We may also find clarity by looking outward for a connection to something greater than ourselves—a community, a congregation, a sense of the Divine Presence.

Neurobiologist Mark Williams and journalist Danny Penman wrote the fascinating and practical book Mindfullness:  An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World. Dr. Williams’ research confirms the human brain stores memories, particularly strongly negative ones, and calls them up instantly and unconsciously as we feel similar emotions, regardless of how unrelated the situation and inappropriate the connection.  These instincts, having helped us react quickly to avoid being eaten by a wild animal in the primordial age of our species, can evoke an image that is disconnected from what is actually playing out in front of us. Our lives are a steady stream of changing refractions, like the lenses the ophthalmologist puts in front of our eyes asking, “Which is better—this one or this one.”  There are times when we have to wake up and refocus, seeing beyond habitual assumptions to the real possibilities.

Dr. Williams states, “Most of us know only the analytical side of the mind; the process of thinking, judging, planning and trawling through past memories while searching for solutions. But the mind is also aware… And we don’t need language to stand as an intermediary between us and the world; we can also experience it directly through our senses. We are capable of directly sensing things like the sounds of birds, the scent of beautiful flowers and the sight of a loved one’s smile…Thinking is not all there is to conscious experience.” p. 11   An amusing book called, Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants, 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness, offers the following:  “We’ve all been admonished not to believe everything we read—after all, the press is fallible and marketers are always selling you something. The best approach to the written word is to develop a healthy skepticism. But what about the cogitated word? I’ve seen a bumper sticker that neatly sums it up for us: “Don’t Believe Everything You Think.” If we validate thoughts as truths simply because they originate within our own skull we’re going to be in all sorts of trouble.”  Kozak Ph.D., Arnold (2009-03-10). Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness (p. 77). Wisdom Publications.

As countless parents before us, Morris and I are striving to appreciate our children as competent adults, and see ourselves, not as abandoned, but with friends and interests, and, God willing, many years ahead of us. As we pass from one chapter of life to another, many of us look in the mirror to see a face only vaguely familiar.  Our mind’s eye view of ourselves no longer matches the image staring back at us from the glass.

As my husband and I process the need to let go and adjust to our quiet home, we find ourselves thinking more about loved ones who are no longer among the living—my parents and his father.  One kind of loss brings back the sadness of other losses.  Even though our goodbyes to our twins two weeks ago were a completely different and fundamentally happy development, our brains were busily recalling other, more permanent partings. These painful associations can create a cascade of melancholy, until we look past the sadness to the actual joy of this moment.

Our ancestors, enslaved in Egypt for 400 years, existed in servitude for so many generations, they couldn’t see themselves in any other light.  The late Rabbi Alan Lew examined this Biblical episode in his book, Be Still and Get Going. He pointed to a well-known inconsistency in the Hebrew text depicting the arrival at the sea with Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen close behind.  In one verse, the Torah refers to the pursuing Egyptians in the plural, but in a subsequent verse, when the Hebrews catch sight of them, “Egypt” is singular in both subject and verb.  Rabbi Lew cited Rashi, suggesting that in the singular, it was the idea of “Egypt” the Israelites saw when they looked back.  In their minds, they were hopelessly outnumbered and powerless, despite the fact that scholarly calculation of the number of Israelites compared to the possible total of Pharaoh’s troops shows the opposite would likely have been the case.

There are seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot, representing a period of transition between the time Israel left Egypt and the moment of receiving the Torah.  It was a long and difficult process to free themselves from their identity as slaves.  Most of those who followed Moses out of Egypt, for all intents and purposes, never really left.  When they were eating manna, they were still thinking of how good the vegetables and fish were back in Egypt.  God was VISIBLY with them as they traveled, appearing as a pillar of cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night, but still, they didn’t feel any different.  Even standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, waiting for Moses to come back from his encounter with God, they panicked and melted down their gold to forge a calf, just like the idols they had seen the Egyptians worship.  They didn’t see or feel or even taste that they were in a new place of endless possibility.  Their surroundings were different, but their spirits were stuck in the old, narrow place.

They almost didn’t make it out of Egypt.  After the darkness and boils and rivers of blood, and the last and most terrible plague from which only they were spared, Pharaoh let them go free.  But they didn’t feel free, and they were more frightened than grateful.  Then they found themselves stopped at the Sea of Reeds.  Pharaoh changed his mind, and sent troops chasing after them.  So, at God’s direction, Moses stretched his staff over the water, and according to the midrash, NOTHING happened, and everyone just stood there.

Only Nachson had the courage to wade into the sea up to his nose, and THEN the water parted.  Was it because he had more faith in God than Moses, Aaron, Miriam, and everyone else?  Maybe.  But maybe not.  Maybe he moved forward because imagining what the Egyptians would do to these runaway slaves when they caught up with them didn’t distract him.  Maybe he was looking ahead and actually SEEING the water in front of them.

I would like to think that Nachshon quieted his fears and saw what everyone else was too terrified to notice–the great sea before them was in motion.  He observed which way the currents were flowing.  The tide was going out.  The sea had swept in and was now receding…carrying away the past and leaving behind new opportunities.  The people frozen in fear all around him still thought of themselves as defenseless and subservient. Nachshon realized at that moment that they were something different. They were a great and holy nation, and they were on the road to the Promised Land.

These former slaves had to raise children born in the desert in order to make the transformation.  Parents grew old and died on the journey, but like our sons and daughters, theirs moved on and felt at home in places their parents had never imagined.  They watched patiently for the lifting of cloud that hovered over the camp, noticed the direction of the wind, and discerned with excitement the shapes of the drifting sand, resembling the waves of the sea that had offered safe passage, and the peak of a mountaintop awaiting their arrival.

Cultivating the art of seeing clearly is quite a journey.  Learning to recognize and look past the distortions created by the overly analytical, restlessly-seeking human mind is worthwhile.  And being part of a community descended from that ancient band of former slaves can help to lift the veil.  From time to time, a Nachshon will appear, but on most days, we will be our own Nachshon, aided by the clarity of a larger perspective.  Rabbi Jeff Roth wrote a lovely guided meditation on a later chapter in Exodus, when Moses was granted his request to see the God who had been speaking directly to him since the burning bush.  God tells this greatest of all prophets that he cannot see God’s face and live.  Moses is to station himself in a cleft in the rock, the Divine Presence will pass by, and Moses will see God’s back.  As Rabbi Roth describes it, [Jewish Meditation Practices for Everyday Life, Rabbi Jeff Roth, p. 133.]  Moses, standing with his back to the cliff viewing God from behind, then sees the world through God’s eyes.  God, creator of darkness and light, gazes at us with the knowledge that when one day, or one year, or one lifetime ends, another begins, with infinite potential.

May our vision be crystal clear in this new year.  May the wounds and sorrows of the past not intrude on the sweetness of the present.  And may we draw strength and inspiration from one another.  Kein y’hi ratzon.   L’shanah tovah.

Cantor Aviva Katzman, D.M. (honoris causa) has been Cantor at Temple Sholom since 1987 and was the first female member of the Jewish clergy in the city of Chicago.