Monday, January 18, 2016

No Home-Sweet-Home in the Wilderness / Parshat B’Shallach 2016/5776

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Dr. King should have turned 87 last week. His last efforts were directed toward organizing the “Poor People’s Campaign.” The plan called for a march on Washington and the erection of a tent city on the National Mall in order to dramatize the reality of people who fall between the economic cracks in our country and suffer the deprivations of poverty and homelessness. But alas, Dr. King was assassinated and the “Poor People’s Campaign” never came to fruition. Nearly 50 years later, and despite five years of economic recovery, more than 45 million people—14.5% of the population of the United States—live below the poverty line. What is more, on any given night, half a million people in America are homeless. And this is the richest country on the face of the earth.

This week, we open to Parshat B’Shallach, famous its account of the parting of the Sea of Reeds, through which the Israelites cross through on dry ground, and for Shirat haYam, the song of triumph the Israelites sing on the far shore. This is the moment that the Israelites’ redemption is consummated. The Israelites are finally entirely free; Pharaoh’s soldiers cannot reach them to haul them back into slavery.

Redemption, sweet redemption. But the Israelites are now homeless.

The sweet taste of redemption soon fades. Three days out from the Sea of Reeds they trek into the Wilderness of Shur to a place called Marah (“bitter”). Its name reflects its water, which is too bitter to drink. As Torah describes it, the people “grumble” and “complain” about their situation. God instructs Moses to throw a piece of wood into the water to sweeten it. The next stop is the oasis Elim, boasting twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees. Sounds nice, but is this sufficient for 600,000 people? From Elim, the Israelites journey to the Wilderness of Sin, where the harsh and immutable reality of their situation comes crashing in on them. “If only we had died by the hand of Adonai in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread!” they whine to Moses. “For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.” (Exodus 16:3) Moses castigates the people:

So Moses and Aaron said to all the Israelites, “…Who are we that you should grumble against us? Since it is Adonai Who will give you flesh to eat in the evening and bread in the morning to the full, because Adonai has heard the grumblings you utter against [God], what is our part? Your grumbling is not against us, but against Adonai!” (Exodus 16:7-8)

God solves the problem, raining down sufficient quail each evening and manna each morning to fill their stomachs and sustain them on their journey but the complaining doesn’t stop; indeed, it is a continuous trop for their 40-year trek through the wilderness.

Is Moses correct in thinking that the people are ungrateful complainers? He seems to believe that the miracle at the Sea of Reeds should provide spiritual sustenance sufficient to allay their fears about the basics of food, shelter, and protection from enemies. Or is he frustrated by their complaining and how difficult it is to lead them?

We might view the Israelites’ situation not from God’s or Moses’s perspective, but from the perspective of the people. Are their fears so difficult to understand and impossible to justify? They find themselves homeless, exposed, vulnerable, and ill equipped to survive in the Wilderness. They barely know the invisible God Whom Moses has come to know and trust, and who communicates only with Moses. Is the level of trust in God that Moses expects and God demands of the people reasonable? Even Moses has a lapse in the trust department: Numbers 20:6-13 attributes Moses’ striking the rock twice to a lack of trust in God to bring forth water.

The Israelites have been torn from their moorings and while slavery is not an enviable life, it is the only life they have known. In Egypt they had homes; now they have none. In Egypt, there were reliable food sources; now there are none. Their worst fears are realized: In Rephidim there is no water. Although God comes through with another miracle and supplies water, this is far from having a constant and reliable source of water, such as the Nile. And, as the Rabbis say: when the ladder is rickety, don’t rely on a miracle (BT Kiddushin 39a). No sooner has water been provided than Amalek attacks and they find themselves battling a savage and remorseless enemy. The Israelites feel desperately vulnerable. Their fear is pervasive and palpable. Should we be surprised? Should they be blamed?

Many people living in our own communities, as well as around the world, live vulnerable lives lacking the basics of food, clean water, shelter, and security that we enjoy. They find themselves face to face with crime and drugs on a daily basis. Yet I hear voices saying, “They should get their act together,” and “There are so many services available that they don’t use” and “This is a land of opportunity—it’s their fault if they don’t take advantage of it.” This is precisely why Dr. King was planning the “Poor People’s Campaign”—because so many who have never known poverty and homelessness cannot comprehend what it is like. It is difficult to empathize with someone whose situation and experiences are wholly different than one’s own. Nonetheless, that is precisely what Torah calls us to do.

That is what Alejandro Aravena of Chile does. Aravena is the 2016 recipient of the Pritzker Prize, which is the Nobel Prize of architecture. Previous winners include Frank Gehry and I.M. Pei. But
Aravena's housing shells; "filled in" by owners.
where others have built colossal, magisterial wonders, Aravena was awarded the Pritzker for designing unfinished, concrete shells of houses for a Chilean public housing project: high quality, half-complete houses for people who are poor. With time, they can complete and expand them to middle-income housing. Thom Pritzker, chair and president of the sponsoring Hyatt Foundation noted that Aravena’s design, “gives economic opportunity to the less privileged, mitigates the effects of natural disasters, reduces energy consumption, and provides welcoming public space… Innovative and inspiring, he shows how architecture at its best can improve people’s lives.” Aravena gets it.

So do the folks in San Francisco who created Project Homeless Connect in 2004, bringing together an array of services for the homeless in a daylong fair five times a year. It can take many days, and money desperately needed for food, for homeless people to travel from agency to agency by public transportation to get the help they need and are entitled to. Here is a partial list of services people can access at the fairs—all in one place on the same day: dental care, eyeglasses, HIV testing, housing information, food, hygiene products, medical care, mental health services, SSI benefits, legal advice, California identification cards, voice mail accounts, employment counseling, job placement, wheelchair repair, and addiction services. PHC can now be found around the country. The Central Maryland PHC (the one closest to where I live) makes available medical exams and screenings, haircuts, legal advice, identification, healthy food, and more—in one place on the same day. PHC was created by people who get it.

And so do the people at the ASPIRE Center in San Diego, a 40-bed residential treatment facility for returning veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury, who could not be successfully treated in out-patient clinics. The Center opened in February 2014. Some veterans arrived at ASPIRE from jail; many would most likely have ended up on the street. At ASPIRE, residents receive a menu of services including vocational rehabilitation, psychotherapy, educational classes, and treatment for PTSD and TBI. We are all lifted up when those who struggle the most are lifted up.

We can do more. We can do better. Perhaps if we look at the story of the Israelites’ experience in the Wilderness through their eyes, we will.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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