In honor of Shvi'i L'Pesach, the 7th day of Passover, on which the Children of Israel crossed the Sea.
When we stood at the shores of the Sea, with Pharaoh's army closing in, and the great cloud of smoke that had been leading us now circling around behind us to baffle the Egyptians, I don't think anyone was expecting the Sea to part. In this mass of humanity caught between two dangers, there were probably theories arising every minute. Rumors of boats. Of negotiations. Thoughts about about-facing and returning to slavery rather than drowning. Some of the hardiest Israelites must have considered the possibility of swimming. Our Midrash of a boy named Nachshon stepping into the water first is evidence of it. Because even if this boy was trying to precipitate a miracle, it is hard to imagine him taking that first step without a Plan B.
And so it is with every obstacle we encounter. Every challenge that threatens our bodies, our families, our spirits. Can we force our way across? Do we have the strength and endurance? Must we wait for a miracle? Is this the time to turn around and say that perhaps we'd be better off leaving well enough alone?
Maybe different strategies work for different people, depending on your nature and your skills. A young Ner Shalomer named Rami Rogers used to regularly swim across the Golden Gate when he was a teenager, from Alcatraz to the Presidio, while his parents pretended not to freak out. If he were at the shores of the Sea, it would be easy. Here come the Egyptians? Just dive in and go. But, as they say, different strokes for different folks.
Take me, for example. I have never been a fan of the water. I say that despite being a Virgo, which I was told [*incorrectly is a water sign. And despite having the name Irwin, which some translate as Teutonic for “friend of the sea.” I like a sunset over the Pacific as much as anyone. But I am not, repeat, am not, a “friend of the sea.” The sea and I reached an understanding a long time ago. I was not going to conquer it, and in exchange I would not place myself in a position of it conquering me.
You might know that Talmud*1* gives fathers several specific obligations regarding their sons, one of which is to teach them to swim. My father did not do that, because he himself didn't know how to swim, meaning that his father did not teach him. So maybe Grandpa Irwin didn't know how to swim either. Maybe I come from a long line of non-swimming, land-locked Keller men, flagrantly violating this rabbinic injunction, generation after generation, or generation before generation, all the way back to the Exodus from Egypt, where some proto-Keller would have stood gaping at the Sea in abject terror.
That terror? That is what my father did pass on to me. So when my mother, filling in on the Talmudic front, sent me to swimming lessons at a public indoor pool in Glenview, Illinois at age 8 or so, it was already too late. I was terrified. I wouldn't put my face in the water; I didn't like being splashed, didn't want water in my eyes, ears, nose. The instructors would bark orders, and I would try to make myself invisible, or I'd just whimper until they'd let me get out of the pool early. To this day, a strong smell of chlorine puts a pit in my stomach.
If 8-year old Irwin had had to cross the Sea, without a mighty-hand-and-outstretched-arm kind of miracle, he'd have been a goner.
Then at age 10, Chaviva Jacobson, the no-nonsense, middle-aged waterfront director at my Jewish summer camp, took matters in hand. She worked with the particulars of my fears, particularly my aversion to having my face in the water, and she used them as the starting point of a solution. Instead of forcing me into a terrified and failed Australian crawl, she taught me to float on my back. Instead of panicking about how I would breathe, I could instead gaze upward, contemplating clouds in the blue Wisconsin sky.
Ten-year old Irwin might have managed some distance across the Sea using his elementary backstroke, while watching Egyptian ibises flying overhead. His survival would have been a gift of creativity, born of his own limitations, the way a pearl grows around a grain of sand.
In high school, my gym teacher took a special interest also. He told me he wanted to make sure that if I ever fell off of a boat I could swim to shore. And even though I really couldn't imagine the circumstance in which someone like me would ever end up teetering on the edge of a boat without a life preserver, his concern moved me, and spurred me to serious effort. He taught me to dogpaddle, and then to jump into the deep end of the pool. He would have me hold one end of a towel while he held the other. He said he wouldn't let go without telling me, and he was true to his word. Eventually every class session started with my going to the diving board, jumping in the pool, and doggy paddling to the side, before the other boys were allowed into the pool.
Sixteen-year old Irwin could have gotten further across the Sea, jumping in, and doggy paddling when the backstroke became tiresome. This further distance would have been a gift born of trust, of accepting help offered caringly, and from the heart.
And there was still one more advance. In graduate school, a lesbian seminarian I knew told me she was offering a swimming class at night in the basement pool of Ida Noyes Hall, and I was always game for studying with a lesbian seminarian. There she taught me to tread water. I learned not just how to move my arms and legs, but that the water does not have to be my enemy; it doesn't have to be an impediment to overcome and a danger to resist. It can simply be a beautiful place to be, floating with it, riding it like a beach ball, just being present.
Twenty five-year old Irwin, and for that matter the 57-year old Irwin, might have made it to the middle of the Sea and, pausing, treading water, might have looked all around, appreciating the liberation from bondage, enjoying the in-between place between slavery and freedom, between fear and fearlessness, between effort and surrender. He might have noticed that he wasn't in such a big hurry to get to the far shore after all.
We all face plenty of obstacles. Politics. Health. Family. Money. Love. For me, sometimes, often, maybe most of the time, the obstacle is me.
We have a habit in our culture when we talk about obstacles: we treat them as things to be conquered. To be overcome. Through miraculous means, or by personal strength. We must beat our obstacles into submission, like God subduing the Sea, the Divine foot on the neck of Leviathan. Any less than supernatural strength is a sign of moral weakness or plain laziness.
But how might we hold obstacles differently? To notice what makes an obstacle feel like an obstacle, and to use that knowledge as the starting point of creativity. To accept help from people worthy of our trust, who offer it from the heart. And, perhaps most radically, to tread water in it, taking the measure of its temperature and flow, seeing it from a new angle, understanding it better, maybe even making friends with it. What is the view from here? What do we learn from it? Maybe it is not here to block our movement, but to invite us to swim. Maybe this obstacle is not an obstacle after all. Maybe Leviathan, asked politely, with some reverence, can ferry us to the other side.
We have all crossed many Seas. We descend from people who crossed oceans. Some out of fear, some coerced, some out of pure hope. We cannot grasp the difficulty of those journeys. But we are the other side of their crossings and their journeys. We are their mi chamocha, their song of jubilation. We are their mi chamocha even when we don't realize it, even when we're making coffee or standing in line at the post office or checking our texts.
And if we each look at our own pasts – at all the times we thought we couldn't go forward, but somehow we did. Step after step, stroke after stroke, by sheer muscle or by creative thinking or by getting help or just by treading water long enough for a favorable wind to kick in or for the Sea to drain of its own accord. We are living still in the mi chamocha of those crossings. As we look ahead, there are undoubtedly more mi chamochas in store.
Poet Alison Luterman says, "Try to love everything that gets in your way." She says, “Thinking Obstacle is another obstacle.” She says, “Learn to be small and swim through obstacles like a minnow without grudges or memory.”*2*
We are, at every moment, standing at the Sea. And we are, at every moment, looking back and celebrating. And we are, at every moment, floating in the midst of the water, bobbing like buoys.
If we can hold all three vantagepoints at once, then we can transform the water itself: from impediment to passage, from menace to medium, from hazard to healing. And then we can simply jump in, even from the deep end.
*1* BT Kiddushin 29a.
*2* Because Even the Word Obstacle is an Obstacle