Rabbinic Reflections: Stepping back or backward

One step forward, one step backward. Is that the beginning of a total of two steps back? Or is it the beginning of a cha-cha? Robert Brault calls someone who thinks the latter an optimist. In thinking about so much of our world at this moment, especially with regard to the pandemic, I confess that, despite my usual optimism, I am much more in the two-steps-back camp. Just when I was starting to think we might bring our carefully constructed successes of the fall into winter, so much of my work, my family, and my personal life has stepped back.

My colleagues and I talk about cumulative trauma and PTSD. We are definitely not being precise in our language as we attempt to name what we see among congregants, students, and friends. The very idea of going back to Zoom services, online school, or even just limiting in-person interactions has generated expressions of burnout, fatigue, and more. In my house, snow days for my children at the start and end of this past week were enough to throw me into a foul mood. (Yes, clergy are human!). Regardless of your stance on the science or the politics of this moment, the moment is psychologically challenging.

I first sought Jewish wisdom in the weekly Torah portion read yesterday, Parshat Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:6. I had guessed that maybe I would find a parallel in the Egyptians’ experience of the plagues that preceded the Exodus. The text, though, focuses on Pharaoh’s response to the last three plagues during which God hardens Pharaoh’s heart. Pharaoh doubling down does offer one sort of parallel, but I found a different one more compelling. Just after the Israelites are commanded to slaughter a paschal lamb, paint its blood on the doorpost, and roast the meat, they find themselves having to flee their homes in haste. The key here is that roasting meat is an act of those who are wealthy; roasting allows the fat to drip into the fire and burn; poor folks would cherish that fat and boil the meat to retain every bit of it. The turn from “free” folk back to “slave” folk is abrupt.

So, what can we learn from the Israelite experience? Do they see that step backward as the first of two steps back after their one step toward freedom? The text says no. Yes, they baked matzah, having not had time to let their dough rise; and they remembered to take the wealth that the Egyptians had given them. In fact, some Egyptians left with them. As they leave, Moses tells them to “remember this day” (Exodus 13:3) when they reach the land of milk and honey (Exodus 13:5); he tells them to be optimistic.

More subtle is the way in which Moses frames the optimism. He names challenges and a variety of tools for instilling the memory. Being optimistic does not mean being rosy-eyed. It means willfully standing in the moment, almost freezing it, before letting momentum carry you.

The central element of three-time daily Jewish prayer is the Amidah, which begins with taking three steps back before then taking three steps forward. We are taught that the three steps back help us exit the emotional space we occupied at the start and then step forward into God’s space. When the days or weeks or months or even years feel like they have their own momentum, especially of this pandemic, I think about stepping back. One step back could just be the start of a cha-cha; two steps back could be a depressing lack of progress, and three steps back give me space to stop. Do I always step forward with courage or joy? Absolutely not. Those three steps back, though, keep me from going backward, instead of giving me a chance to decide how to step forward. Indeed, we will step forward. I hope we can do it soon, do it together, and do it toward a better world.




About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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