Ishay Ribo, the Israeli musical superstar, in his song Halev Sheli, describes the Yam Suf/ the Red Sea as a reflection of the inner state of the Jewish People. The throbbing sea, the throbbing hearts. The crashing waves, the clashing thoughts. Like a body of water in a storm, the inner state of the Jewish People is a chaotic mix of conflicting and confusing emotions. As they attempt to cross the Yam Suf, they are also attempting to navigate the raging waters inside their mind and soul.
In Ribo’s depiction of the splitting of the sea, the drama of Kriyas Yam Suf is both timeless and universal. We are constantly faced with the challenge of navigating difficult times and attempting “to walk on the dry land in the midst of the sea.” And even as we do so, even when we forge forward, the waters of the sea tower over us “to their right and to their left,” leaving us both exhilarated and full of fear as we rush to our destination.
As we commemorate the anniversary of the splitting of the sea on these last days of Pesach, this imagery could not be more relevant. Who is not filled with raging and conflicting emotions at this time? Fear of an impending illness that we cannot see, countered by gratitude for our good health, and then feelings of guilt for feeling well when others are no longer living. Despair over joblessness and retirement funds that have dried up, and hope that the economy will rebound before it’s too late. Overwhelming loneliness, exasperation at being unable to care for young and bored children, and feelings of inadequacy and dependency that are anything but natural to us. At times appreciating the change of pace, and at others, missing the structure and rhythm of our not so distant past. We are heartened by the uplifting stories of medical professionals whose self-sacrifice is heroic and we are crushed by the growing death toll. And all of these thoughts and feelings are compounded by the incessant news-cycle that we know we shouldn’t pay constant attention to, but we cannot pull ourselves away from.
Even as we push forward, like the Jewish People, and attempt to cross over this chaotic mix of feelings, we cannot ignore the towering walls of water on both sides, and we are reminded that we are not where we are supposed to be. We celebrated Pesach without family, without friends, and some celebrated all alone. And today, as we remember our loved ones for Yizkor, a time that we are normally surrounded by the warm embrace of community, we are feeling especially vulnerable and especially lonely. The Jewish People walked on dry land in the heart of a sea and we are celebrating the most communal of holidays in solitude.
Much has been written about the great value of solitude; the deep introspection that the quiet allows for and the independence that solitude can foster within. But solitude can too easily bleed into loneliness, a most debilitating state of being. As the novelist Honoré de Balzac once quipped, “Solitude is fine, but you need someone to tell that solitude is fine.”
More than just sharing with others, our need for others comes in the form of validation. When we share our experiences with one another and we feel understood, when we do something and we feel appreciated, that recognition breaks through our sense of loneliness and insignificance. A slightly eccentric teacher of mine would respond to my wishing him a good morning with, “Thank you for acknowledging my existence.” He was right. When we nod at each other, when we smile at a story, when we empathize, and when we share, we feel acknowledged, and thus we feel alive.
There are many people who feel more alive today than ever. These are mostly those on the front lines, the heroic doctors and nurses, and all those ensuring that the rest of us are well. In one of the great ironies of the human experience, in their flirting with danger, they are living the most meaningful life, and when they are not feeling overwhelmed with fear and exhaustion, there is a sense of pride and purpose.
But there are many others who are “inessential.” There are many others who need to justify their every movement and cannot leave their home without an excuse. We all thrive on the approval, explicit or implicit, from others, and our lack of interaction makes us second-guess our worth. After all, I am not essential to the wellbeing of society. And so, when we are not distracting ourselves by the news-cycle, feelings of loneliness and questions of self-worth wave over us and threaten to overwhelm. “Save me, Hashem, for the water has come up to my soul.” (Tehillim, 69:3)
If you read the Torah’s account of the splitting of the sea carefully you will notice a number of seeming redundancies, some of which imply that the sea was split twice. There are numerous theories that explain the repetition away, but the most intriguing of them all is alluded to in the commentary of Yonasan ben Uziel, a first century sage. According to this approach, the sea actually did split twice. Once for all the Jewish People, and the second time for none other than – Dasan and Aviram! The same Dasan and Aviram who left over manna when Moshe told them not to, the same Dasan and Aviram who joined the rebellion of Korach, and the same Dasan and Aviram who told the Egyptian authorities what Moshe had done to the Egyptian taskmaster and almost had Moshe killed.
Dasan and Aviram had actually stayed behind in Egypt, choosing not to go along with the Jewish People. But then, after hearing about the great miracle of the splitting of the sea, had a change of heart. When they arrived at the sea, this theory goes, the sea split a second time, just for them, and them alone.
We are mistaken when we think that the sea split to save all of the Jewish People and it was only in the merit of the entirety of the nation that they were saved. Dasan and Aviram demonstrate that this was not the case. In the words of the Sefas Emes, the sea could have split for each and every individual Jew. Regardless of merit, regardless of popularity, regardless of how important they were in the eyes of society, the sea would have split for them – and for any of us, and for any of us alone. And that’s because we are essential, as essential as can be.
Those who say Yizkor know this lesson all too well. As you cover your faces with your Yizkor book and reflect on the lives of your loved ones, as your eyes give forth their tears at the simplest of memories, you know. You know exactly how essential your loved ones were. They may not have had titles, fame, or fortune, but to you, they were everything.
And so, as we face the raging sea of our times, we too must not forget how essential we are. We are essential to our family, though they may not always express it in a way that we wish. We are essential to out friends and colleagues. And most importantly, we are essential to G-d. He imbued us with a soul and with life and is constantly watching over us.
The sea would have split for me. The sea would have split for you. The great sea would have split for each and everyone of us. Even if we feel all alone and even if we feel insignificant. Because we are not alone, and we are very significant. There is family that feels connected to us. There are friends who appreciate us. And there is G-d who always loves us. They are all standing with us as we face the turbulent sea. As we attempt to cross the Yam Suf of our life. The conflicting emotions are frighetning, the solitude could feel debilitating. But we are not alone. We are all essential. And with G-d’s help we will cross this sea.