Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Emerging from COVID as the Parting of the Sea
During the first week of the Covid shutdown last year, I heard someone say that he had begun to look in the mirror each morning and say to himself, “How are you going to be different when this is over? How are we all going to be different when this has passed?” His question has been moving in my heart ever since.
Now, as spring is in the air and we have tentative glimpses of a gradual return to normal life, the question captivates me again. Am I emerging from this terrible experience changed for the better? Will American society — and the human family — have learned to be more compassionate, more just, and more interconnected? Or will we habitually snap back to the ways things always were?
After diving into the Exodus story during our seders, we have one last chance to encounter the climax of the Exodus story, including the crossing of the sea, in the Torah reading for the seventh day of Passover. This year, I am reminded of a remarkable piece of commentary I learned long ago.
Rabbi Phyllis Berman and Rabbi Arthur Waskow suggest that the crossing of the sea was an experience of birthing. The scene includes water, powerful walls, and a turbulent and terrifying passage through a pulsating canal. I recently learned that the Zohar contains a hint of this perspective when it suggests, in connection with reflections on the crossing of the sea, that the Shechinah (the feminine face of God) gave birth! In Daniel Matt’s commentary, he writes, “The splitting of Her womb parallels the splitting of the Red Sea (which also symbolizes Shekhinah)” (Zohar II 52a-b). What might this possibly mean?
Clearly, the Israelite people was birthed through the Exodus experience. In leaving the suffering of Egypt, we became a people, heading for a great revelation and an unknown land, at the direction of a God we did not yet know. Before this, we were only an extended family, the children of Jacob. After the Exodus, we became a people seeking to serve God, however imperfectly, and to be a blessing to the world.
To imagine the crossing of the sea as a birth is to see that the Israelites did not only survive the tumultuous passage through the sea. We came through the dangerous crossing as a prelude to transformation into new life.
At this turning point in 2021, after a terrifying, disorienting and heartbreaking year, we turn toward life again.
Of course, we did not make it through these turbulent months unscathed. The trauma of this time is surely still working on our nervous systems. Many of us suffered terrible losses of many kinds, and all of us know that countless people did not survive the pandemic to encounter safe, dry land on the other side. And the pandemic laid bare excruciating systemic inequities that had always been present in our country and around the world.
For those of us approaching a point of celebration now on the horizon, we can dare to look back and ask: Did we do more than survive the time of Covid? Have we changed for the better? How can we insist that our country and our world do more than return reflexively toward what was normal before Covid, despite the cruelty, disconnection and injustice of how things always were?
In April 2020, near the onset of the pandemic, Indian activist and author Arundhati Roy wrote, “Coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could … In the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”
Passover is nothing if not a story of transformation. It seemed implausible that a ragtag group of enslaved people could muster the courage to follow their new leader out of oppression into a new life, in the care of their newly recognized God. It seemed impossible that the defenseless Israelites could cross the sea, with the Egyptian military pursuing them. And it was profoundly difficult for the new nation to grow into what it was to become.
This moment — the conjunction of springtime, Passover and a gradual post-pandemic reopening — calls us to imagine new possibilities. Perhaps American society could become more connected and equitable, less greedy, and less violent and hateful. Perhaps world leaders could become more collaborative and more caring. Perhaps the human race, humbled by the might of the microscopic virus, could emerge into a new life of goodness, compassion and justice.
Perhaps we can cross the sea together to begin a new life.
This column was first published at jweekly.com on April 2, 2021.