Parshat Beshalach, Exodus 13:17-17:6
I spent a couple of years as a prison chaplain in California. It wasn’t exactly the job rabbinical school prepared me for, but it had its moments. I’ll say this for inmates: they’re a very appreciative congregation. No matter what you do, it’s probably the high point of their day.
My flock resented their incarceration. Few claimed to be innocent of the crimes they were jailed for, but they felt the cops or the judges had given them a raw deal. The evidence was interpreted to their disadvantage. Someone else had gotten off more lightly. Where was God when their sentence was handed down?
God was right there, I argued, guiding their steps as the Divine plan required, even if it wasn’t the direction they hoped for. God does not lead the Hebrews out of Egypt the shortest way but by the difficult Red Sea detour (Exodus 13:17-18) because there is more to learn from the longer journey. By the same token, God led my felons to their future via Pelican Bay State Prison. They’d better find the lesson of the route.
If you’re reading this column behind bars, I assure you that God is there with you. God wants to be your cellie. Even if you’re reading this column in freedom, you are not 100 percent free: no one is. You have health or family problems, career or romantic setbacks, bills you can’t pay. How could God do this to you? How could God lead fugitive slaves to a body of water that blocks their escape (Exodus 14:1-9)? But there is a reason for everything.
God urges the Israelites forward even before the sea opens (Exodus 14:15). According to the midrash, the waters don’t part till the first Hebrew jumps into the drink. Supposedly, that pioneer is Nachshon, the brother-in-law of Aaron (Talmud Sotah 36b-37a). That’s how we know God is always there to help us, but we have to take the first step. My convicts, and all of us, are responsible for liberating ourselves.
Sometimes I visited the inmates in their cellblocks. More often they came to me, crossing a prison yard full of their enemies, watched by armed guards and rooftop snipers. Like the Hebrews traversing the Red Sea between walls of water (Exodus 14:22), the inmates risked everything for a glimpse of freedom, an hour of spiritual sustenance. I had to submit lists of men expected in chapel, counts of men arriving and leaving: any discrepancy was a potential security crisis. It was a miracle if my program unfolded as planned: but that miracle gave us faith, just as our ancestors’ faith is renewed at the far end of the Red Sea passage (Exodus 14:31). They dive in, God responds.
“Redemption” is a word that makes many Jews uncomfortable. They say it sounds Christian: I say no, Christianity sounds Jewish. In fact, geulah, redemption, is a frequent prayer book term: it means “another chance.” You made mistakes, you got into trouble, your life stinks: and then somehow God gives you another chance; that’s redemption. My California convicts knew viscerally what redemption means. Many were LWOPs, sentenced to “life without parole.” But those eligible for eventual release would celebrate the slow approach of freedom, like a reverse birthday: “Only thirteen years to go!” They couldn’t wait to start over, even from scratch.
Our Jewish archetype of redemption is the parting of the Red Sea. That’s where the liturgy comes from: Mi chamochah ba-elim, who is like You among the mighty? Nora t’hillot oseh feleh, awesome in praises, working wonders (Exodus 15:11). Adonai yimloch l’olam va-ed, the Eternal will reign forever and ever (Exodus 15:18)! My present congregants just say it to be polite. The inmates really meant it.
Beyond the sea lies the desert, another barrier to cross: But God shows the way there too. Though God rests on the seventh day of creation (Genesis 2:2-3), no human being keeps the Sabbath till Moses orders it in the wilderness (Exodus 16:23-26). Shabbat in the prison chapel was stiff and stern: but at least they were out of their cells, voicing their fears and dreams, hearing old stories and singing new songs, praying for whatever relief they could imagine. Our ancestors enjoy a double portion of manna on the Sabbath (Exodus 16:29), but my thugs got something even better: a taste of community. Five years later, they still write me raving about it.
Hardly any of my maximum security congregation were real Jews. But religion is the only hobby allowed in prison, so naturally they make the most of it. Having already tried several other faiths, and hearing that the clink had just hired a rabbi, they decided to give Judaism a whirl: Why not? I was glad to teach them, as they were the kind of students who ask the deep questions: not what music to play at a wedding or what food to serve at a funeral, but what the Almighty means by assigning us our particular path in life. Come to think of it, that is the job rabbinical school prepared me for. But I had to jump in to realize it.
Rabbi Joe Hample is spiritual leader of the Tree of Life Congregation in Morgantown, W.Va. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.