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Congregation Netivot Shalom

Swimming with Shtarkers

Rabbi Creditor hands out the class reader.

So how tough were the Israelites, really?  This question — like a stand of reeds — lay just beneath the surface of our many discussions in the first installment of the four-session class that I’m doing with Rabbi Menachem Creditor at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.  Titled “Swimming the Sea of Reeds,” this short but intense course is an attempt to investigate what happened at that crucial moment in the Book of Exodus when the fleeing Israelites, seemingly about to be slaughtered by the Egyptians, experienced a saving miracle: the sea in front of them parted, they went through to the other side, and then the sea closed over their pursuers, killing them instead.

That sea, which I remember being referred to as the Red Sea (a pleasing name in my Communist childhood), is called, in the great modern translation by Robert Alter, the Sea of Reeds.  Which, as I have recently taken up the double-reeded oboe again — after a break of many decades — I find even more gratifying.  In fact, I was so taken by the term Sea of Reeds that I decided to make it the title of my next theater piece.  And that, in turn, strongly suggested that the piece live at the intersection of two kinds of practice: Jewish and musical.  (Yes, I typically retrofit my shows to titles that I love.  So for example, when — in researching a medical condition called Sjögren’s syndrome — I once happened upon a newsletter called “The Moisture Seekers,” it was practically inevitable that I’d develop a show about sex just to go with that title.)

The reading for this session was Chapter 14 of Exodus, in which the sea-splitting happens.  Like all the other chapters, it’s filled with language and imagery that I find endlessly evocative, confusing, and elliptical.  Alter’s notes do a great deal to elucidate the text — or at least to clarify what the confusion is about — but that still (fortunately) leaves much to ponder.  And as I mentioned earlier, in class one big, recurrent issue for us was the question of how much, exactly, did Moses and the Israelites do.  Because the narrative makes it quite clear that God was acting, in essence, as the grand puppeteer — hardening Pharaoh’s heart when the Egyptian king was about to give up the chase, directing Moses’ actions so that this (very) human being (and not God) would appear to be causing the miracles, and generally moving all the characters along in such a way that the Israelites would ultimately triumph.

So were the Israelites heroes, in the sense that we usually think of the word?  If I had any knowledge at all about ancient Greek drama, I would insert an impressive passage here about Oedipus and Fate — but I don’t, so I can’t.  And yet there seems to be a similar vibe here — perhaps an ancient vibe — that has to do with the Gods (or, in this case, the one God) having already written the stories that we humans, in our self-centered way, register as our own experiences.  So ironically, in the Exodus story — which is seemingly about the transformation of a slave population into a culture with agency — the protagonists themselves are quite passive.  Actually, worse than passive — they also do a lot of kvetching!  Often they sound like elderly passengers on a cruise ship that’s turned out to be much less luxurious than in the brochure.

But there’s something else, too — a deeper thing — that I felt from that chapter, and that I think others in the class felt as well: As much as we (or, at least, I) may, well, kvetch about it, the language also transmits an enormous amount of power.  There is, in this story — in the way this story is told — a profound empathy with those who suffer terribly, who lack agency.  And there are so many people who suffer in this way, day after day — for whom the miraculous gift of a life is something more like a curse.  What draws me to Judaism — and to other forms of theology as well (and, for that matter, to democracy) — is the idea that our purpose, in our own lives, is to try to improve the lives of others; and the belief (hope?) that a community of like-minded people can work at this together.  In what I see as a violent and quite random universe, it is incredibly strange that we might choose to spend our brief time of consciousness (or, at least, much of it) in such ethical pursuits; and so it is perhaps only fitting that it would take incredibly strange language to describe that journey — and, more important, to inspire similar journeys.

And if we’re really going to go there, together, through the Sea of Reeds — intellectually, spiritually, and physically — I think we’re going to have to be quite tough indeed.


Come with me to Israel!

250px-locationisraelsvgFrom July 13-24, 2011, I’ll be joining my friend Rabbi Menachem Creditor (of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley) on a trip to Israel — my first ever (and his umpteenth)!  And we’d love you to join us!  Our goal will be to have authentic encounters (the activity prescribed by the late “I-Thou” philosopher Martin Buber) with a wide range of Israelis, and I fully expect minds to be blown.  (Is that why they make yarmulkes?)

Below is a (provisional) itinerary, to give you a sense of the trip’s scope.  For more info, please email Vicki at

Wednesday, 13 July – Israel Bound!

  • Depart on overnight flight to Israel

Thursday, 14 July – When You Come Into the Land (Deut. 26:1)

  • Arrival at Ben Gurion Airport (today’s program depends on arrival time)
  • Ascent to Jerusalem
  • Gaze upon the Old City of Jerusalem from the Haas Promenade, standing where Abraham stood at the dawn of Jewish history; take in the breathtaking view
  • Hotel check-in and welcome dinner
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Friday, 15 July – Jerusalem of Old

  • In the Kotel Tunnels, walk alongside the Western Wall’s massive foundation stones
  • Tour the Southern Wall Excavations and learn about the ancient Temple at the Davidson Center
  • Travel through many centuries as you tour the Jewish Quarter
  • Return to the hotel to prepare for Shabbat
  • Kabbalat Shabbat at a scenic overlook or a choice of local synagogues
  • Shabbat dinner at the hotel
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Shabbat, 16 July – Shabbat in Jerusalem
Parashat Pinhas

  • Shabbat services at a choice of neighborhoods synagogues (suggestions, walking instructions to be provided)
  • Shabbat lunch at the hotel
  • Shabbat rest, relaxation at the pool
  • Havdalah with Rabbi Creditor
  • Free evening in Jerusalem
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Sunday, 17 July – Those Who Made a Difference

  • Visit the Memorial Museum, the Children’s Memorial, and the Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles at Yad Vashem
  • Take a sobering walk through the history of the Jewish State at the Har Herzl Military Cemetery
  • Stumble across many authentic archeological finds in a hands-on dig through archeological matter from under the Temple Mount
  • Free evening in Jerusalem OR Evening program with a Jerusalem Masorti congregation
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Monday, 18 July – Into the Desert

  • Visit the fascinating Jo Alon Center for Bedouin Culture near Lahav for an in-depth introduction to this desert culture and some Bedouin hospitality
  • Visit Ben Gurion’s Hut in Sde Boker for personal insight into the life of this outstanding Zionist leader and Israel’s first prime minister
  • Walk through the beautiful nature reserve at the Ein Avdat Oasis
  • Dinner at the field school
  • Overnight: Sde Boker Field School

Tuesday, 19 July – Freedom Fighters or Fanatics?
17 Tammuz

  • Early departure for the Dead Sea Region
  • Ascend by cable car to Masada. Tour this impressive excavation and discuss the terrible dilemma faced by its Jewish population during Roman times
  • Enjoy a walk through the beautiful Ein Gedi Nature Reserve to the waterfall and review the biblical story of kings David and Saul “on site”
  • Stop for a dip and mud baths at Mineral Beach on the amazing Dead Sea
  • Travel north through the Jordan River Valley to the Galilee
  • Hotel check-in and dinner
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Ma’agan Guest House

Wednesday, 20 July – The Golan Heights

  • Travel through the Golan Heights by jeep (Shvilim), off the beaten path, and gaze down over the Galilee as the Syrians once did
  • See how robots are used to milk cows at Kibbutz Avnei Eitan
  • Return to the hotel to enjoy a Lake Kinneret swim
  • Free evening on the Tiberias promenade
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Ma’agan Guest House

Thursday, 21 July – The Northern Mediterranean Coast

  • At Agam Hahula (Hula Lake) ride family golf carts around the lake and learn about the many species of birds that migrate through Israel each year
  • Glide down the Jordan River in a kayak
  • Tour the synagogues, courtyards, and shops of the mystical city of Tzefat
  • Meet with a Tzefat kabbalistic artist in his gallery to explore Jewish mysticism through the prism of his creations
  • Hotel check-in
  • Dinner in the kibbutz dining room
  • Overnight: Kibbutz Hanaton

Friday, 22 July – In the Footsteps of Sages

  • Take a tour of Kibbutz Hanaton
  • Explore the magnificently excavated ancient city of Tzippori, home to Rabbi Judah the Prince; discover ancient beauty and evidence of a community in which Jews and Romans coexisted peacefully
  • Travel south for the ascent to Jerusalem
  • Kabbalat Shabbat at Robinson’s Arch
  • Shabbat dinner at hotel
  • Overnight: Har Tzion Hotel, Jerusalem

Shabbat, 23 July – A Heavenly Shabbat
Parashat Mattot

  • Shabbat services at a choice of neighborhoods synagogues (suggestions, walking instructions to be provided)
  • Shabbat lunch at the hotel
  • Shabbat rest, relaxation at the pool
  • Summary session and farewell dinner at the hotel
  • Havdalah with Rabbi Creditor
  • Depart for the airport

Sunday, 24 July – A Temporary Departure

  • Arrive in USA
  • Begin planning your next Israel trip with Rabbi Creditor!