Inspired Words

Some thoughts for Passover, which I’ll share on Friday morning at The Community Synagogue. Moadim l’simchah!

My parents were never much for using swear words when I was a kid; they just weren’t part of the family vocabulary. But I have one clear memory of when the inspiration struck my dad.

We were on a family vacation, the summer before I started high school, in Park City, Utah. My dad and I thought it would be a fun adventure—and a great way to take advantage of being in a ski town during the summer—to rent bikes, take the ski lifts high up, and ride down the trails that crisscross the sunny slopes. It was the first time either of us had been mountain biking.

I remember when we got to the very top. Valleys opened around us. Brilliant trees rustled in the breeze. Cool air mixed with the warmth of the sun. Trails led from the peak in every direction. Woods offered shade, between the green descents.

There was so much to take in.

My dad turned to me, and he offered praise: “This is f****** awesome.”

And it was.

And then I hit a rock, rolled my foot, broke my ankle, and began 9thgrade in a leg cast. That was the last time I went mountain biking.

It’s not every day that we’re moved to words of praise (clean or dirty) in such spontaneous ways. I’m glad my dad acknowledged the majesty of our surroundings—clearly, it was memorable.

On Friday morning, the seventh day of Passover, we read one of the most majestic and memorable parts of the Torah: the Song of the Sea. This is, of course, the climax of the Passover story, fitting for the end of the holiday. It is when the Israelites have reached safety, having crossed through the parted waters. Now, we are free to make our way to Sinai, where we will receive the Torah.

From the only time I was at the Red Sea, in 2005.

Moses, Miriam, and all Israel sing the words of praise in the Torah. But according to one legend, as told by the second Kotzker Rebbe (and found in Etz Hayim, p. 407), they almost didn’t.

The legend says that the angels were ready to break into song as soon as the Israelites were safe and free. Such celebration would have drowned out any human singing. As they begin to shout, God interrupts them: “Wait! Let Israel sing first. Humans are able to praise only when they are inspired. If we do not give them the opportunity, the desire will pass.”

When I encountered this midrash, at first I was impressed by the way it recognizes the ephemeral moods of human begins. Then a question arose: What about all the prayers of praise we’re asked to say regularly in services? If humans are able to praise only when they are inspired, what are we supposed to be doing all those other times?

We can learn from the Kotzker Rebbe’s teaching that there is more than one kind of praise. Some are the rote words we recite on a regular basis, and others are the truly inspired words we shout when majesty confronts us, when our jaws drop.

There’s another midrash told about the Israelites crossing the sea (Exodus Rabba 24:1). As they walked between the walls of water, two curmudgeons—Rueben and Simeon—looked only at their feet, caked in waterlogged muck. “What is all this mud we’re slopping through?” they complained. “We had mud aplenty in Egypt. For this we are free?”

The moral of that midrash is that when we look only down at the mud, we miss the miracles around us.

The truth is, though, that there really is mud—there was mud at the Red Sea and there is mud in our lives. We get sick, we grieve a loss, we fight with those we love. There is plenty of muck we have to trudge through. Sometimes it feels like quicksand, swallowing us up.

This, then, is what the rote praise prayers do for us: they are reminders, even in the midst of the mud, to look up. Not because we will be moved by miracles at every moment, but because the miracles are there, too. And, sometimes, the inspiration will strike, and we’ll be ready—and able—to offer true praise. We don’t want to miss it.

It might even be f****** awesome.

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