The Boundary Crossers

"Perhaps 'God of the Ivrim, the Hebrews,' meant more than an ethnocentric boast. For Ivrim means 'those who cross over,' nomads, wanderers, the kind of people that in the twentieth century Stalin called rootless cosmopolites. It seems to have been used by the settled, 'responsible' peoples of the Middle East as a contemptuous label for people who wouldn't stay put where they belonged. 'Wetbacks.'

"Perhaps Moses and Aaron were warning Pharaoh that the Breath of Life — which blows where it wishes, cannot be captured and pinned down — was the God of those who cannot be pinned down to one place, one life path, one Narrow Space.

"Moses insisted that the Boundary Crossers had to leave in order to celebrate a festival for the Breath of Life.

"Often this is read today as an attempt to mislead Pharaoh. But if we imagine Moses groping his way toward a broader, stronger form of resistance, and if we ask ourselves what it would mean today to take on the task of nonviolent resistance against our generation's pharaohs, perhaps our varied religious festivals can embody that resistance.

"Perhaps some festivals that we call 'secular,' as well: Martin Luther King Jr. Day, celebrating not a triumphant warrior but a nonviolent opponent of war, not a wealthy overlord but the suffering servant of the poor and disempowered. The Veterans Day that began as Armistice Day, the day to end the war to end all wars. The Fourth of July, a day of resisting a tyrant not by choosing a new one but by creating an alternative form of self-government.

"When Soviet Jews began dancing for the Simchat Torah festival in the public streets of Moscow, facing what seemed to be a totalitarian regime, that was utterly different from the old Jewish custom of dancing with the Torah scroll in the hidden streets of the ghetto. Their new kind of dancing began to crack the rigidity of their pharaoh. And they called forth allies.

"When American Jews celebrated Freedom Seders that demanded an end to the Vietnam War, and feminist Seders that affirmed new freedom for women within and beyond the boundaries of Jewish life, they cracked ancient rigidities that required both Jews and women to stay 'in their place.' They became Ivrim, 'Hebrews' — boundary crossers.

"And when they celebrated Tu B'Shvat, the midwinter festival of the Rebirthday of the Trees, by facing the corporations that were draining the Everglades and destroying ancient redwood forests, they invoked those kabbalists who knew that shefa, the divine abundance that fills and fulfills the world, needs to be renewed on earth as well as heaven. And they had allies.

"When Israeli Jews celebrated the festival of 'huts,' Sukkot, they built 'Sukkot Shalom' — huts of openness — to move toward peace with Palestinians. They too were facing the pharaonic rigidity of governments that were stuck in a narrow place. They too had allies.

"When Christians reenact the Stations of the Cross by walking through a city's meanest streets — drug houses, gun stores, spots where the homeless try to sleep — they are learning that when we face 'the least of these,' it is God's Face we see. These values, expressed in Christian symbolism, invite new alliances beyond the Christian community.

"When Muslims walk the Hajj in Mecca, as Ali Shariati taught, touching the skirt of Hajar brings them close to the downtrodden, the outcast; offering up their own 'Ismail' means giving up the idols of ego and distraction; sharing the meat of a lamb with the poor reminds them that God wanted not that Abraham kill his son but that the poor be fed. These values, expressed in Muslim symbolism, invite new alliances beyond the Muslim community.

"In all these ways, we see new explorations in what it might mean for every people to cross old boundaries by moving to a new place in its history, turning old festivals to new purposes.

"Anciently, those Hebrews who fled Pharaoh hoped to settle down and make a decent society on their own, through military conquest of a small land for themselves. But over the centuries, that vision became indefensible in the face of the Roman legions.

"So their descendants scattered around the world; ruefully accepted that the great powers of the world could not be drowned as Pharaoh had been; turned their attention to making holy their own communities; became ivrim, wanderers, once more; and gave up the hope of repairing the world at large. In that mode of scattering it seemed workable, though painful, to suffer pogroms and expulsions. But that vision too was shattered by the Holocaust: in the modern world, no place to hide or flee.

"What then? Imagine reclaiming festivals as Moses did, facing pharaohs with that nonviolent challenge. And imagine making allies of other spiritual communities that might be ready to become Ivrim — the Boundary Crossers — in order to face the pharaohs of today, on behalf of the Breath of Life."