The Power of Flexibility — Parashat Beshallach, February 10 2017


By Rabbi Heather Miller

Some would say I am a social justice seeker– or a rabbi informed by the prophetic teachings–and yes, it is true. I work for inclusivity and I try to help build a healthier, more holistically safe and pleasant and peaceful world around me. And, sometimes that means I attend marches, and protests and vigils. And you are all always welcome to attend. Where-ever I am, you are welcome.

But, I want to share with you something very frankly: though marches are always unifying, they aren’t always comfortable. It is not always comfortable standing up for love, peace and justice.

What do I mean? Well, over the years, I could tell you of the many actions I have participated in and the variety of times I personally was uncomfortable. Sometimes those with whom I march or gather, hold opinions that are inconsistent with or even diametrically opposed to opinions the opinions that I hold dear. For instance, participating in a conference organized around ending the death penalty, I sat with other clergy, some dedicated to a pro-life/anti-choice stance.
Another example: strategizing and advocating for Jewish LGBT rights with fellow Jews, but ones who demean interfaith marriages.

The worst was when I participated in a Human Rights march in Washington, DC, and had a dilemma– do I stand next to the person holding the Israeli flag with replaced the star of David, replaced with a blue swastika? Do I say something? Do I simply leave the march?

Solidarity work is not for the faint hearted. It is personal and it is political. And, it challenges everyone involved. And every case is different.
I am sure some of the faith leaders present were uncomfortable by my queerness, for example. Everyone has to figure out how to hang together. Or else we will fall apart.

Perhaps this is why foundations and other funders like it when unlikely allies coalesce behind a common banner– because the phrase, “unlikely allies” is code for “people you would not think would normally stand in solidarity with one another because their viewpoints are so different, but because they are, it is quite impactful.”

Over the past few weeks, we have seen a new leader with new policies and a radically new way of occupying the role of president emerge, and we have realized that now, perhaps more than ever, it is time to organize– as a community– in support of fundamental human dignity for all. And, to do that effectively, we must join up with unlikely allies, under the banner of a common cause, to advance society.

And, this is not easy. It takes a lot of bending. Remember, when the Movement for Black Lives came out with their platform, and people noticed that it referred to the activities taking place in Israel as “genocide”? Some people refused to bend on that matter. But others had a more pragmatic approach.

Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute recently wrote about it in the Jewish Journal– he noted that his friend expressed disappointment that some of our co-religionists pulled out of actions working in solidarity with the Movement with Black Lives– rhetorically, he asked, “I can’t support Black kids not being gunned down, because some of the movement leaders don’t meet my Israel ideology purity test? That’s the hill we want to die on?”[1]

Yehuda Kurtzer argues that it is important to join in solidarity with others– even others who may have very different viewpoints from our own. He sees this dance, negotiating whether or not to stand in solidarity with those against us, for the sake of coalescing power, as a necessary and important responsibility. He says, “The existence of multiple moral frameworks with which to view the world is not a sign of confusion; it is a sign of sophistication and strength.” [2]

Bending, and keeping our eye on the goal, keeping a clear list of priorities, and understanding what is winnable and what is pressing and what is vital, when and what actions would be the most impactful, is where the work of organizing for social justice is done. That, and the relationships, of course.

This week, we Jewish communities around the world are reading Parashat Beshallach– the story of the Jewish flight from Egypt, through the Red Sea.

Sometimes I wonder what that experience was like. Marching through those parted waters, with everyone in the community. EVERYONE in the community. You know that annoying neighbor who chit chats loudly, and that guy at the market who sells smelly stew. And that guy– you know the one– the one who doesn’t respect personal space? Well, ALL of the Israelites marched together in search of a better world, to make a better life, united under a common vision for their future.

Aesop knew that the ability to bend is a tool of survival. He wrote about it in a parable, which has many variants. It goes something like this:

Once there was a lovely woodsy area, and next to it was a pond. In the woods stood a giant cedar tree—with many branches full of more branches and leaves after that. And in the pond stood a tiny reed, with one little green stalk.

Night after night the tree would say, “Ah ha! I am the strongest in this forest!” And sometimes the little reed would respond by saying, “Pardon me but I don’t think you’re really the strongest one in the forest.”

The large cedar tree was always confused by this remark, how the reed could say such a thing? Until one night, when the winds from the west began to blow and blow and push on the tree. The wind pushed and pushed on the cedar tree, with it’s wide trunk and heavy branches, and so it tried to stand up against the wind.

But when it did that, it’s branches began to creak and snap. The cedar tree became scared. It felt the push of the winds getting stronger and stronger. It knew that it was in danger of being toppled over by the winds. That’s when the the tree looked down at the reed in the pond and noticed that the reed wasn’t worried at all.

“Reed! Why aren’t you worried about this storm? Can’t you see I’m creaking and cracking and breaking here?!”

As the reed was bending and swaying in the storm, it said, “cedar tree, you must learn to bend like me! Then the winds that push on us will not feel threatening. You must learn how to bend. Bend cedar tree! Don’t be so hard and stiff!”

Just then a great gust of wind blew by—it pushed and pushed on that cedar tree with great force— and tree was scared and the little reed said, “Bend!! Cedar tree Beeeeeeeeennd!!”

The tree, usually stiff and stubborn, finally heeded the advice of the reed, and began to move and flex and suddenly the winds didn’t seem so scary anymore. It wasn’t in danger of toppling over.

The next night, was different than all the other nights. This night, the tree said, “reed you ARE the strongest in the woods because you knew how to be flexible and bend with the pushing of the wind.”[3]

I share this story not only because it is about plants and tonight is Tu B’shvat which begins the birthday of the trees, but because it reminds us that a bit of flexibility is important in life. And it is important to know when to be flexible. In fact it is a vital skill to know. If the cedar hadn’t learned to be flexible, it would have met its end.

Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar recognized that being flexible was a vital skill when he wrote in the Babylonian Talmud (Ta’anit 20a), “be pliable like the reed, not rigid like the cedar.”

This is also why the ancient rabbis said that the end of a cedar tree is firewood! The end of a reed is the Torah, since the Torah, because in the Sephardic tradition, is written with a reed.

So, as we begin to organize, as some of us who have not really been organizers before do this especially, or if we haven’t done it in awhile, may we all learn to march with and gather with and organize with and write with and pray with and hang with all types of people with all kinds of opinions, priorities and values, but all who have a shared vision of our future together. Because if we don’t hang together, we may suffer consequences apart.

May we bend, just like that arc of history, who Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. says is long but it bends towards justice– sometimes we need to bend in order to bend justice. Amen!

[2] Ibid.
[3] Adapted from a source not known.

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