Wishing it Away – Parshat Beshalach 5779

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As a parent of young children, I live in a world of contradictions. I always have two simultaneous thoughts running through my head: I want my children to remain in the stage they are currently in forever, and at the same time I want them to move out of this terrible phase and mature already. And it never fails; the minute they’ve reached a new milestone, I go through the same emotions again.  Sleep through the night? Sure, but then I miss those sweet, intimate snugly moments at 3 a.m. when nothing else matters. Get yourself dressed? Wahoo, except that also means relinquishing control over what outfits get put together.

A popular way to examine the relationship between God and the Israelites is as that of parent and child, and the notion of stages of growth fits that comparison perfectly.

When they found themselves in Egypt, naturally they were unhappy as slaves. The minute they were free, the harsh realities of that freedom made them yearn for the comfort of what was familiar.

In Parshat Beshalach we read:

As Pharaoh drew near, the Israelites caught sight of the Egyptians advancing upon them. Greatly frightened, the Israelites cried out to the Lord. And they said to Moses, “Was it for want of graves in Egypt that you brought us to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us, taking us out of Egypt? Is this not the very thing we told you in Egypt, saying, ‘Let us be, and we will serve the Egyptians, for it is better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness’?”

This tendency is human at a basic level. No situation, no moment in time is going to be without its own harsh realities. In reading about this phase of the Israelites’ journey into freedom, we are reminded to take a step back and reflect as objectively as possible before proceeding. We can attempt to wish away the phase, or we can set about doing the work necessary to change the reality into something better.

Does that mean I won’t long for the days of easier airplane trips and reliable nap schedules? Of course I will, but I will do so knowing I made the most of each phase to prepare myself for the next one.

 

Guatemala, Day 5: Everywhere in Between

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This morning began like the others, with an early and somewhat chilly walk around our host city, in this case Quetzaltenango. We walked quickly and early so we could pack up and get on with our day.

Our first session was an opportunity to learn about the life of the in-country consultant for the organization that sponsors this trip. As unbelievable as it sounds, he spent years of his adolescence hiding in the trees of the jungle to avoid the same fate as some of his family members, who were killed simply because they were indigenous, they were different. Escaping with his life, he chose to devote his life to helping others in the same situation. He finds strength in his faith and in the good he sees in humanity. (Just, wow.)

From there we boarded the bus for the long and beautiful ride from Quetzaltenango to Antigua. The roads were punctuated with small villages and fruit stands. From the windows we saw different parcels of land dedicated to crop production and very slim cows grazing. We saw the three volcanoes that surround the area, and Fuego was even giving off puffs of smoke as a show for us.

Our upbeat conversations were quickly halted when we learned about the Rohingya humanitarian crisis, as the genocide is being committed against them in Burma/Myanmar. Once again I’m reminded that “never again” is sadly still a slogan and not a reality. We’ll be learning more about this genocide and the work we can do to raise awareness and mitigate it as we prepare for our advocacy day in D.C. in March.

After a long and winding road, we finally made it to Antigua. We had a delicious lunch at a local restaurant and then went to meet with an organization dedicated to free and fair press. These people dedicate themselves to being on the front lines in all areas of the country and reporting on what they are actually seeing, not what the government wants them to publish. They rely on social media to get their messages out. Mayn of the investigative journalists face grave danger for their work, and yet they keep fighting. They are the voices of the resistance and do it through their persistence. Their stories resonated with me as I reflect on the state of journalism in America.

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From there we had some time to boost the local economy. I bought local chocolate and then engaged in a delicious tasting of three local rums. About half the group joined together for this tasting, and it was a relief to have some time to reflect, rejuvenate, and simply be together. The conversation turned to where we should go on our next advocacy trip. I’ve caught the bug of advocacy and would be honored to continue to travel with this organization and promote the work they do.

Dinner was another delicious feast, and then after dark we arrived at our final accommodations: a coffee plantation with gorgeous views and stellar rooms.

I have so much to ponder and reflect upon, and so much gratitude for the honor of being on this trip and for the grantees we are meeting who show me what moral courage, bravery, and persistence look like in the human spirit.

Guatemala, Day 4: Moral Courage

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Today began as all the others have, with a bleary-eyed, yet invigorating and enlightening walk with Ruth and other inspiring friends. I only got about five hours of sleep last night because my hotel room was quite chilly (there’s no heat) and, as it turns out, the walls are also a bit thin. That made it challenge today to get my spirits up, but just like the past few days, the scheduled experiences did not disappoint.

We went to meet with one of our organization’s grantees who works on behalf of local midwives. This organization is absolutely incredible. The women and a few men work tirelessly to promote safe and healthy birth experiences for women and children. The statistic given was that out of 2,000 births a year, only 600 happen in the hospital. That leaves midwives, who in many instances are shut out of hospitals and threatened for their lives, to provide care.

These women made us delicious tamales and snacks, served tea, and shared their experiences as providers of life. We viewed their birthing rooms and exam rooms for those mothers who choose to have their child in the clinic as opposed to their home, and we learned the Mayan rituals for providing safe birth.

They shared a beautiful invocation tradition, using the spirit of the sunrise, sunset, wind, and sky. Every child has a gift and a purpose determined on their birth, and the midwife’s job is to teach the parents about this gift.

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I was especially touched as we arrived at one midwife’s home. The “house” was really a series of cement structures connected by tin roofs, and her exam room was surrounded on the outside by dogs, cows, roosters, and chickens. We heard all about her experience in her district. She shared that they feel birth is a spiritual practice, in which you prepare your heart and pray along the way.

These women work 24/7, often traveling late at night and early in the morning to provide support. They face dog bites and sometimes abusive husbands to do the work they do. These women exhibit moral courage on a daily basis. They understand that women and their children deserve safe, healthy, and supportive birth environments and heed the call to do this work when the government tries to shut them down. They fight for the mother and baby to have a spiritual and personal beginning in their journey together.

As we left, they were filling out paperwork. One of the midwives cannot read or write. She’s been a midwife for over 30 years, and truly knows babies. One of her co-workers was filling in the paperwork for her, and she signed using her thumbprint. We all have unique fingerprints. When we touch others, literally and figuratively, in kindness and with our full spirit, it gives birth to a better future, so to speak. What imprint will you make on others?

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Guatemala, Day 3: Mountains and Beauty

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Today began like yesterday, with a brisk and enlightening walk with Ruth and two new, wonderful friends, as we took in our last moments in Guatemala City. The city was bustling with people going to work and school, riding bikes and scooters and motorcycles and cars and buses.

From there we gathered as a group for some (much needed) reflection on yesterday and some learning before we had our meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. The meeting was diplomatic and short. We were allotted one hour with our representatives there and did the best advocacy for human rights we could manage in that time.

From there we got on the bus to transfer to Quetzaltenango. The ride was absolutely magnificent. Many of you know that I like to move and walk as much as I can. Today, I spent six hours on a bus taking in the changing landscape, the vast differences between the towns we drove through, and the beautiful and complex country around me. The bus ride was punctuated with conversations about our goals in our rabbinate and how we find “moral courage.” This conversation was difficult for me, as I’ve often shied away from conflict and advocacy work. After my time on this trip I know that I can no longer do that. I have power in my role as rabbi and as a citizen of the United States, and I must stand up against injustice. I’m not sure what this will look like when I return from this trip, but I do know that something inside me has been turned on.

From the bus window I saw volcanoes and lakes, flowers, stray dogs, roadside stands, and women tending their crops. Just as we approached our hotel we passed a statue in the center of town. This is a statue of a local man, waving goodbye. It represents good luck to those who make the journey to be immigrants to America. Yes, immigration to America is one of the top exports from Guatemala because life here can be so bad that the only way to survive is to immigrate, work to make money, and send the money back to support your family. I have so much to think about.

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One of the best parts of this trip are the new friends I’m making among my colleagues. It feels like a luxury to spent this much time engaging in meaningful and deep conversations with new friends. I’m looking forward to conversations that continue to nourish my soul and feed my heart.

Off to dinner and a good night’s sleep! This was a much needed day to catch my breath.

Guatemala, Day 2: Persistence and Resistance

After a decent night’s sleep, day two began with a lovely walk around the area of the hotel in Guatemala City. I am surprised and a little bit saddened by how Americanized the city is. Carl’s Jr., McDonalds, and Papa John’s are everywhere. The only chain I haven’t seen is Starbucks, and for that I am grateful. I also realized how paralyzing the language barrier is for me.

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Following my walk I enjoyed a DELICIOUS breakfast. The fruit is incredibly fresh. We then did some learning on what it means to have ethical community engagement and discussed what it is to look at versus look with. We need to engage in ethical community by CHIME: understanding Context, Health and wellbeing, Informed choices, Mutual benefit, and Ethics, as a process. Unfortunately this was the last part of the day that left me cheerful and hopeful.

Before lunch we met with an organization we’ll call the “Human Rights Defenders.” A quick side note on security: because of the political unrest and because the people we’re meeting with are often working against the corruption and impunity in government, we have been asked not to name them or their organizations while we are in the country. This organization works to provide safe passage for those who come under attack for protesting or working to end corruption. They protect civil society from attempts by the government to stifle fair land ownership, wages, etc.

We discussed how we can use our “whiteness” and American citizenship to defend the defenders. The men and women of this organization put their lives in danger every day fighting for justice and the underprivileged and poor. They engage in “accompaniment” which they define as face to face interaction with the persecuted and their families, encouragement and moral support, standing with others in court and informing them of the process, and sustaining the families of those who flee. The leaders of this organization started it in 2000 as a response to the rise in crime and violence four years after the Peace Accord was signed.

I walked away from that meeting with despair for the number of poor who simply want access to basic needs, but at the same time impressed with the work they do. This is moral courage. My question from this meeting: What does it mean to have “civil society”? I’d love you to help me answer this!

Lunch was followed by a bus ride to the Museum of Memory, the place that commemorates and teaches about the history of Guatemala from the Mayan people through today. On the way there we drove past the protests happening against the corruption of the government and the government attempts to shut down CICIG, the commission against impunity here.

We then heard from the human rights law firm in Guatemala and some of the people they work to support. This meeting left me in tears. The firm helps community leaders demand collective rights, when they are almost always criminalized for it. The land in Guatemala is important to the people, those who are indigenous and those who happened to land here. None of the speakers asked for a job or a home. They asked for the rights to work their land, to have a place to call their own, rather than be stripped of their rights and land by big corporations or the government. The head counsel for the firm shared that he has to dress in upscale suits because his skin color is so dark, he is seen as lower, other, and less than by officials and lighter skinned Guatemalans. White supremacy is not just an American issue. The common feelings in this session were fear, helplessness, despair, and suffering. It was devastating to sit in that room. They ended by asking us to fight on their behalf when we go to Congress in March.

So where does this leave me? Well, with a lot of questions. The genocide in Guatemala shares much in common with the Holocaust in Europe and the pillaging of the land in America. In the Museum of Memory they had a book entitled “Never Again,” vowing to teach people about the Guatemalan genocide and the “armed conflict” so that it won’t happen again. I stood there wondering if “Never Again” was possible. The similarities from genocide to genocide are striking. How do we break that pattern? How can we respect others and recognize as equal those who are “other” to us? Why do we fear difference?

How can we change a culture of corruption if the only thing the children see in their society is corruption? Can we raise a generation of children to be different, stronger, more just and fair than the “leaders” they see today?

We asked the leaders of the law firm how they sustained their mental health, knowing the deep despair and injustice they see daily. They responded, “Persistence and resistance.” Amen to that!

I was grateful after that session for the few minutes to regroup in my room before dinner, which, like all the meals so far, was delicious. Now it’s time to sleep and pack for tomorrow’s journey. This trip is at times humbling, heartbreaking, and inspiring.