It is the Torah’s most exciting, most cinematic story. The Israelites, newly freed from slavery, camped at the shores of the Sea when suddenly the sounds of Pharaoh's approaching chariots filled the air. Realizing they were trapped, the ex-slaves cried bitterly to Moses, "Were there too few graves in Egypt, that you brought us to die here?!" (Exodus 14:11) Moses prayed for deliverance, and was commanded: "Tell the Israelites to go forward. And you lift up the rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it..." (Exodus 14:15-16)
They come to the cemetery with a pocketful of stones to be left on the gravesite. Once I've recited the tradition's prayers and a few words of memory, they dutifully place the stones on the marker. But I can see in their faces that the stones they carry home are so much bigger than those left behind. Tiny pebbles are left on the grave marker, but boulders remain on the heart: rocks of hardened bitterness, betrayal, and rage.
Pity Esau. One moment of weakness, one momentary impulse, and his birthright is gone. He rushes to fulfill his father's dying wish for a savory meal, and while he's out hunting, his mother and brother conspire to rob him of his blessing.
Every Shabbat morning, I spend a few moments with an old friend. Rabbi Arye Yehuda Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe, was leader of a Hasidic community in Warsaw before the first world war. Through his wonderful book, Sefat Emet, we share a little of Shabbat learning together. Here is what he taught me one day:
I watch the news for a few minutes, and then I turn it off. It’s just too painful. It’s too painful to witness the tears and sobs for loved ones murdered so brutally. It’s too frustrating to listen to the story retold over and again – the unstable young man radicalized to hate, the easy access of military-grade weaponry, the feckless politicians rehearsing their talking points. The evil of it all is just too hard to absorb.
I love America. I know Jewish history too well to take American democracy for granted. My ancestors were among the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. We were, quite literally, the wretched refuse of the old world’s teeming shores.