Ps. 114: On Liberation & Connecting to the Earth
Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service (AJWS) from 1998 to July of 2016, is currently the organization’s inaugural Global Ambassador. Ruth also works with AIDS Free World and serves as the inaugural Social Justice Fellow at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Additionally, she is the Social Justice Activist-in-Residence at the JCC of Manhattan. Ruth previously sat on the State Department’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group and is currently a member of the World Bank’s Moral Imperative Working Group on Extreme Poverty.
Rabbi Or Rose is the founding Director of the Miller Center for Interreligious Learning & Leadership of Hebrew College. A co-publisher of PsalmSeason, he is also co-editor of the new volume, Rabbi Zalman Schahter-Shalomi: Essential Teachings (Orbis Books, 2020)
“When the Children of Israel left Egypt…” (Ps. 114:1)
The ancient story of the Exodus has been a foundational resource for the Jewish community and for many others seeking freedom and justice throughout the ages. This biblical narrative has all the elements of an epic tale of a journey. Having suffered in Egypt under an oppressive regime for generations, the people must suddenly take leave. After setting out on their trek, they find the winding path to the Promised Land to be long and hard—much longer and harder than they ever imagined. And the people cry out repeatedly in moments of challenge, pain, and despair, as we are all prone to do. Moses, the great liberator and prophet, also struggles—he struggles with the people, he struggles with God, and he struggles with his own emotions and limitations. The Exodus is a story that seems to resonate across time and space, including our situation today.
But before we explore possible connections between this biblical narrative and the contemporary world, let us look at the psalm before us, Psalm 114. One of the key messages of this brief text is that the natural world was intimately involved in this epic tale of liberation (expanding on earlier biblical texts). As our ancestors moved through the wilderness, the mountains and waters stood on their heads. What powerful imagery! Mountains skipping about, hills dancing, seas and rivers running backwards, rocks unexpectedly yielding water.
But one can imagine that such signs could have been terrifying to the newly freed slaves as they set out on their journey. Was life in such great turmoil during this time of change that everything was going haywire? Or, were these dramatic reactions from the natural world indications of the interconnection of all life and the presence of a Force that stood behind both the liberation and the workings of nature?
I much prefer the psalmist’s interpretation. We are not alone—even when we and our leaders feel exhausted or overwhelmed by the challenges of life, we are not alone. We are part of a much larger web of life, undergirded and animated by a vitalizing Force—mysterious to be sure—helping to shape our present and our future. As long and hard as the journey may be, as often as we find ourselves pushing the limits of human possibility and witnessing human failure, we are called to push on.
Like the ancient Israelites, we are living in absolutely frightening times. It is so hard to know where we stand in our own Exodus story. Globally, we are beset by a severe pandemic that is proving to be very difficult to control, stymieing even the best of our world leaders. Nationally, we are seeing ugly evidence of the plague of systemic racism that we have allowed to simmer for far too long. It is now boiling up in ways that newly demand our attention.
These intersecting crises are forcing us to recognize that the journey to the Promised Land is far from over. There is much more work for us to do—from mask wearing and quarantining to broad social and environmental reform.
And perhaps, these dramatic and painful events can serve as reminders that we are part of a world that is ultimately much bigger than COVID-19 or American racism, and that we are not alone on our long slog toward justice, peace, and sustainability. The path will be rough and uneven to be sure, the obstacles will seem insurmountable at times, but we must summon on our best selves; work in solidarity with others willing to march forth together; support honest and hard-working public servants; and step forward to lead ourselves when necessary.
As we think deeply about the changes we need to make in our world, we must also begin to reimagine our relationship to nature. Like humankind, our earth is in a topsy-turvy state and needs our care—and we need it to survive and thrive. The health and wellbeing of humanity and of the planet are inseparable. We should be startled by the reports of improved air and water quality in our time of quarantine. Are these any less dramatic signs of our interconnection than the psalmist’s description of the mountains and seas? What will it take for humankind and the rest of the natural order to both thrive simultaneously?
In this extended period of social distancing and soul searching, we would be wise to spend more time outdoors, enjoying the peace and tranquility of our natural environments, reconnecting to the earth, and listening carefully for the “still small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) of the One who calls us to continue on the journey.