Rabbi Fox's Message for II Adar/Nisan 5776  April 2016

The Exodus: Wilderness, Reflection, and Purpose

I've looked at life from both sides now,
from win and lose, and still somehow
it's life's illusions I recall.
I really don't know life at all.
                              —Joni Mitchell

You are not alone if you have been feeling that the pace of change in our society and reflected in our daily lives has been overwhelming. Aspects of our society that we once relied upon seem as if they are no longer reliable. The future feels uncertain because we are aware of how many forces there are pushing on all sides against the arc of history.

So it must have been for our ancestors in Egypt as they were asked to leave what they knew; albeit, not on balance a positive world in which they found themselves, but it was, nonetheless, familiar to them. Proof of this is in the narrative of the Torah that describes anxiety, fear, anger, and many other emotions connected with facing an uncertain future. Often improperly characterized as a desert, our ancestors left Egypt and entered the wilderness of Sinai, and portended a future unknown. This wilderness was a place that appeared to them as an empty space, a place where they were forced to face their reality and themselves.

Just like our ancestors, we are frightened to face the silence, the emptiness, at key moments in our lives that requires our attention to detail, particularly engendering honest assessments of ourselves and our world around us. No one likes to look back at where we have been and think that our journey was for naught; this is the pain of the loss of a child or, less severely, the undoing of our achievements in workplaces and holy spaces. And yet, if we are to live life as we are intended to live it, as our Jewish heritage directs us, we must explore our lives and continue forward on the path ahead, whether its through a wilderness or straight on to an idyllic land or life that is promised. Ultimately, the sure steps of tradition and custom make sense in context; our next steps also must be taken with wisdom as we journey through our lives.

The odd thing about our lives is that we cannot choose its start or know its end. We have a truly inefficient existence. In response, we leap forth into organizing and setting routines for ourselves and for others. We create sense out of the baffling mess before us, imbuing meaning into the wilderness of the incomprehensible. Just think about this: Each day, we ask ourselves hundreds, if not thousands, of questions, some of the most common being, “What do I need/want?” and “Why did s/he say that to me?” and “What should I do now?” This internal dialogue (sometimes offered out loud by accident or inappropriately or to invite others to share in solving our dilemmas) is not just unavoidable as we travel through our life’s journey, it is part of the experience itself.

Our ancestors had something, at least as described in the Torah, that we struggle to develop and to maintain in our day: a relationship with a unifying, universal force. Some of us call that “God,” and others wish it to remain more enigmatic and others wish to avoid the concept entirely. If we take a moment, however, to include in the life-review we perform in the quiet moments of our lives the idea that we are connected to every living thing and certainly every living being that has ever lived, we will discover that the emptiness in our lives fades away and we are no longer isolated as we travel through out lives. We need not be in Exodus from ourselves.

The story of the Exodus, when placed in relief against the myriad of experiences in our lives that create a sum total of our journey, enables us to see our life from both sides and to live with and perhaps even embrace the uncertainty of what we have achieved and certainly of what is ahead. In simple terms, we can choose to have faith in the fact that we have made a difference in the world, even if it is not readily obvious or, as I believe, has been simply for our time in it. This strikes me as one of the truly holiest of acts — being present and fully engaged in the gift of Life.

May we face our wilderness, the seemingly empty parts of our lives, as a blessing that enables us to continue our life’s journey with a renewed sense of awareness of our purpose as we acknowledge the gift of Life.

Ah Zissen und ah Kosher Pesach — Sarah, Matan, Doron, and I wish you and yours a truly sweet and meaningful Passover!

Rabbi Gerald R. Fox

© Rabbi Gerald R. Fox