“What We Remember in Our Feet”
Cragsmoor Stone Church
August 19, 2018
Happy Sunday to you. And thank you – especially Deacon Jeff Slade – for inviting me to share in today’s service of worship and learning. Deacon Jeff and I met through the New York Theological Seminary. I’m delighted to be with you.
Some call me by one or another title – among them rabbi, professor, Jewish movement leader, judge, “Your Honor,” “hey you” or a few saltier titles I’ll leave to your imagination. Today I’m grateful to be with you as a colleague, a member of the flock, each of us walking our spiritual pathways step by holy step.
Moments ago, we offered up Amnon Ribak’s poem, “Every Person Needs to Have a Certain Egypt,” to remind that we all cross the proverbial sea of Exodus. We all traverse life’s waters – one moment to another, one consciousness state to another, one life stage to another, maybe even one life to the next.
Jewish tradition places the crossing of the Sea of Reeds in our core liturgy twice daily because this liberation narrative is what Judaism takes as its North Star – our magnetic orientation, our pointer to who we are, what God is, and what relationship we are called into co-creating with the sacred every day. This holy narrative is one of the most familiar stories in Western civilization. We were enslaved, and the Holy One led us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, so we could serve. The essential holy bargain of Jewish Torah exchanged freedom from bondage for freedom in service. The rest, as they say, is history.
History, of course, has a way of repeating, and the very fact that the Exodus liberation narrative repeats and persists in Western consciousness is no accident. The Exodus is the keystone liberation story of Judeo-Christianity, perhaps because it’s a spiritual history we repeat our own lives, both individually and collectively.
Maybe that’s why Torah repeats the words “because you were slaves in Egypt” not once but 36 times, and uses them to justify many commands of sacred living. We must love the stranger as ourselves, because we were slaves in Egypt. We must serve the poor, widow and orphan – the most vulnerable of society – because we were the most vulnerable in Egypt. We must uplift Shabbat, a day for re-ensouling, zeicher yetzi’at mitzrayim – as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt. Egypt, mitzrayim, in Hebrew literally the “narrow place.” The Exodus, then, is the existential journey out of narrowness.
And not just for our ancestors, but also us – we ourselves. Tradition holds that we are to regard ourselves as if we ourselves came forth from Egypt, the narrow place – with lashes on our backs, with blisters on our fingers, with thirst for dignity on our tongues, with gratitude for miraculous freedom in our hearts. In Amnon Ribak’s words, we are to remember our own certain Egypt in our feet.
But let’s ask why – especially why remember in a manner so embodied, in our feet, as if to re-live? This question lifts above Jewish particularism to touch the heart of spiritual life, and also a challenge of all spiritual life. At a time when people are either turning to spirituality or fleeing from spirituality in response to history and especially history’s hurts, this question is worth asking deeply.
Why do Christians recall and re-live the experience of Jesus in Jerusalem? Why are Muslims called to take the Hajj journey to Mecca? Why are Jews called to re-live the Exodus?
One reason we do is because our ancestors did: spiritual history drives tradition and thereby defines, shapes and gives meaning. This we know. Another reason we do is because we are: spiritual history reflects the human condition. Liberation theology, the call to journey from narrowness to liberation whether in time, place or spirit, is not a uniquely Jewish theology but rather a theology for the human experience itself that Judaism refracts through its own historical and symbolic lens – for us, the Exodus from Egypt to the Land of Promise.
Each sacred tradition does this, refracting the ineffable Oneness through the particular lens of its own ancestral time, place and experience. And as for our faith traditions, so too for our own personal journeys between narrowness and expansiveness, dark and light, bondage and freedom, despair and empowerment.
Our feet remember where we’ve been. On our feet, we take this essential human journey every day, and inevitably we carry our baggage with us.
Abraham Joshua Heschel understood this so well that when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. led the voting rights march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965, Heschel went to Selma and walked with Dr. King – and violated the Jewish Sabbath to do it. Challenged by Jewish authorities on his choice to break Jewish law to stand up for African American voting rights, Heschel famously answered, “I was praying with my legs.”
At our best, what we remember in our feet, in Judaism and in all spiritual life, is how to live spiritually in the world – baggage and all. As teacher of my teachers Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, of blessed memory, taught in taking a page from Sufi tradition: “All religious traditions are pointers toward the infinite. Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”
So one way we can ask “why remember in our feet?” is to ask an even deeper question: what’s the “point” of spiritual life? Words are dubious pointers: no finite words ever can describe the Infinite, so we grope for metaphors – crossing the sea, remembering in our feet – and we treat our metaphors as sacred. But we can forget that the pointers are not the point. When when we do, our spiritual practices that become our spiritual habits can lead us astray.
Maybe that’s why Jewish mysticism understands “what we remember in our feet” to mean “what becomes our instincts” – because in Hebrew, the words “feet” and “habit” share a common root. What we remember in our feet is partly how we accustom ourselves to walk in the world, how we see, how we think, how we react – and whether in our spiritual zeal we confuse the pointer for the point.
And partly what we remember in our feet is what we hold onto. Here spiritual life both inspires and potentially entraps us. What we remember in our feet (or in our hearts and minds, or in our bones) isn’t self-justifying just because we deem this memory “spiritual.” What we remember and how we remember; what we should remember and what we should try to forget; what we hold onto and what we release; what inspires and what imprisons – rarely are these simple discernments. Put another way, how do we know what’s precious to keep, and what’s just baggage we’re accustomed to carrying?
Examples abound, some of them tragic. Last week, a Pennsylvania grand jury issued a scathing 900-page report about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. A CNN headline quoted a victim; what she said broke my heart: “When I hear the word ‘God,’ I get flashbacks of abuse.” She and countless others carry in their feet an experience of religion that wounded them, and today they walk through the world with that limp.
My own faith tradition limps too. Actually, the Children of Israel are named for that limp. Israel – in Hebrew literally Yisra-El / “wrestles with God” – derives from the Biblical Jacob’s dreamscape wrestle with an angel. Jacob emerged with a new name (Israel) and a wrenched thigh – literally, with a limp.
This week’s chapters of Torah, which Jewish tradition sets to read now in the annual lectionary cycle, is full of societal limping. Torah recounts aggression, war, plunder, heinous crimes, wayward children, mistreatment of women and other things we’d rather not carry in our feet, or in our hearts, or in our tradition – or see in the news, re-living societally year after year and century after century. And to put a fine point on this freight of spiritual memory, this week’s Torah portion concludes with Deut. 24:22: “always and always, remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” We can never flee our past: we carry memory forever.
Torah then doubles down on the memory we carry in our feet. Deut. 25:19 continues: “Always remember what Amalek” [Torah’s word for vengeful others] did to you leaving Egypt” – when they attacked us from behind and took down our most vulnerable. Always remember. And as if we didn’t get the point, Torah hammers it home in Deut. 25:22 “Always remember: never forget!”
Always remember, never forget. Tough stuff. Sometimes I read these verses and imagine them asking Jews to valorize victimhood. And then I recall the modern Jewish clarion call to remember – this time the Holocaust. Generations of post-war Jews valiantly took “Never Again!” as their new mantra, and we might have wished that the world would listen, but genocides in Bosnia and Rwanda followed. And meanwhile, what effect on those who valorize such painful memory? When does memory fuel the poison of counter-xenophobia, a quality of spiritual protectionism that is less expansive than constricting? I’ve seen that in Judaism, too. So I’m compelled to ask a perhaps heretical question: when does communal spiritual memory shackle rather than liberate? Is that what Amnon really meant by each of us having our own “certain Egypt”?
A related story. I’m also a spiritual director, in Hebrew mashpia, and into my office came a gentle and loving person, who has a deep and abiding spiritual practice, and who can’t bear to hear the German language. This person never lived in Europe and lost no direct relatives in the Holocaust. But the Judaism of this person’s young adult years was so scarred by the hurt of the Holocaust that this person became was scarred in turn. Like the Biblical Jacob, this person, and many others, and maybe all of post-war Judaism, have been walking with a limp.
Liberation theology responds partly by spiritualizing the limp. We refine our compassion in the fire of personal or collective suffering, so that our suffering can have purpose. And by that purpose we can be liberated from embittered spirits. If so, then every limping step can lean forward toward that promised land.
But how about communal spirituality? What if communal spirituality and even religion itself limps? What about when they valorize rather than truly heal old wounds? When they claim to validate suffering or subjugation in the name of religion? When they offer staid neutrality or meek comfort to the afflicted, and don’t afflict the comfortable? Or worse, when their comfort is like institutional self-soothing that dulls our response to a world that looks far too much like this week’s Torah narrative of war, plunder, heinous crime, wayward children, mistreatment of women and all the rest? At its best, such self-soothing is called “spiritual bypassing” – unconscious dulling or distraction of spirit by spirituality itself. At its worst, it’s something else masquerading in the form of spirituality.
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor and prophet of 20th century Jewish reform, taught that we must take sides, because neutrality always favors oppression. What Wiesel carried in his feet from Auschwitz is the radical drive of spirit-driven action to heal the world. Tikkun olam, in Hebrew “healing the world,” is what we – all of us – are supposed to be about. That’s what we’re supposed to carry in our feet, and in our hands, and in our hearts, and before our eyes, and in our financial plans, and at the ballot box.
To me, tikkun olam is the point of every spiritual pointer – yours and mine and all pointers in creation. The existential spiritual struggle of this day is not whether we limp: there can be little doubt that we do. The question is what we will make of the limp. Will we shy from the hard questions about our own faith and spirituality, and give them a pass in natural deference to religion and religious authority figures? Or will we wrestle like Jacob did, audaciously – even to wrestle our sense of God and our relationship with the sacred – so that we can more passionately help heal the world?
I don’t pretend to have full answers to these questions. Jews (and I suspect all peoples) have been asking these questions for thousands of years. What I do know is that the questions themselves are holy: they are real, they are part of the glue of real spiritual relationship and, yes, sometimes they’re a real wrestle. If we’re brutally honest, we may see that these kinds of wrestles are what we carry in our feet. They are our certain Egypt, our narrow place and also our crossing of the waters, our journey of tikkun olam and also our path to liberation.
May it be so for us, and for 21st century religion, and for our beloved country, and for the only planet we have. In the words of our ancestral blessing:
יברכך יהו׳׳ה וישמריך May YHVH bless you and keep you.
יאר יהו׳׳ה פניו עליך ויחנך May YHVH light you up, fill you with grace.
ישא יהו׳׳ה פניו עליך וישם לך שלום May YHVH turn in you and give you shalom
– Not only peace, but also shleimut, wholeness even in our wrestling and limping, that we may remember the point in our feet, and pray with our feet as Heschel did, and repair a broken world desperately waiting for our healing hands.