The ancient rabbis taught that once Rebbe Yochanan the scholar, asked “How did our people leave Egypt? What did it look like?”
The other rabbis all gave their guesses and theories.
Just at that moment Serach Bat Asher, a women legends say lived hundreds of years popped her head into the House of Study and said, “Oh, I know how it happened. I was there.”
“The people”, she said, “left marching through the center of the sea and the water parted into two high walls. And each wall of water was like a window.
On one side we saw all the generations that had come before us, all the people that had survived bonadge, that had kept going, that had stayed alive us. And on the other side we saw all the generations that would come after us, that would survive because of our freedom march.
We saw them all on either side, generations of people standing together, enlivened and liberated through water. And we heard the roar of the sea and the hollers of Pharaoh's army. And we kept going.”
The people were given life and liberation through water so that they would go on to give a tradition of life and liberation to their descendants. The story of Exodus is the story of a water birth, or really re-birth.
And when Rebbe Yochanan asks “what was it like to get free?” is because telling the story of a movement moment is life giving.
Here we are
So here we are in this moment of Yom Kippur, a time of rebirth for ourselves and our community. And today we are also witnessing the rebirth of two intersecting movements- one we hear about often in New York City and one we do not always. Climate justice and native rights.
You’re sitting with me, Miriam Grossman, your exhausted and energized student rabbi, back from a week in North Dakota, standing in solidarity with the Water Protectors, Native folks and allies fighting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which threatens to poison the drinking water of Standing Rock Reservation and which has already destroyed native burial grounds and sacred sites. I was there during the Aset Yimei Teshua, the Days of Repentance, a time repair and return leading up to Yom Kippur.
I shared on Rosh hashanah, that 8 years ago I lived and worked on Standing Rock as an intern for the tribal historic preservation office, which works to preserve the stories of elders as part of an oral history project and which fight oil companies from desecrating Lakota sacred sites. In that time I built relationships that are still incredibly dear to me.
This Spring up to 7,000 people, including 280 tribes from across the country and the globe, converged on Standing Rock to hold prayer ceremonies and direct actions to stop the pipeline. Now that North Dakota cold and wind has hit, the camp is at 1,000 people but still going steady and strong.
I meet people who are coming from the amazon, ecuador, and from Aztec communities. I heard many elders say they never dreamed a day like this would come.
I feel stripped down and lifted up, in a Yom kippur state of mind for days. I suppose camping in 30 degree weather, with serious winds will do that to a person. Let me tell you, NY is straight up tropical for me right now….I’m not sure why you aren’t all in shorts. But I’ll adjust.
You are sitting in Brooklyn NY, on Lenape land. Yesterday was indigenous people's day, still celebrated as Columbus Day throughout the country.
You’re sitting in a country that is about to see more pipeline proposals than ever before.
The diagrams I saw from friends who work for the tribe look like, as the people of Standing Rock say, a nest of black snakes. There are 4 more proposed pipelines through Standing Rock’s sacred homelands that will soon be announced. All of them threaten the drinking water of native communities. On Yom Kippur, as we fast from water, we reflect on what it means for this vital life source, to be withheld and compromised for our country’s poorest population.
You are sitting with Kolot Chayeinu.
Over Rosh Hashanah this community raised almost $3,500 to help the Water Protectors build safe winter shelters. You are alive in at a paradigm shifting moment. And through our collective donations and the letter Rabbi Lippmann sent with me, you are part of this moment.
When I gave the donations, my dear friend Waste Win Young said to express her deep appreciation and gratitude to all of you. She is sending a medicine wheel in thanks with sage from Wounded Knee, another revolutionary place in Native History. This is a gift I know she would not give if she did not feel safe from appropriation, safe to say thank you on her own terms.
Dust and Ashes and Creation
Personally, I was profoundly grateful to be rooted in the teaching Kolot has been sitting with throughout these holy days- to live in the balance between knowing I am dust and ashes, and all creation was made for me.
This week, I often felt like dust and ashes.
I had forgotten what it feels like to hear people describe the torture they experienced as children in 50’s and 60’s at the hands of the missionary boarding school system. To hear about the violence and loss that is still such a salient part of reservation life.
To hear friends describe how exhausted they are, even with this movement, because movements are hard, the factions are varied and often when oppressive forces are bearing down, we hurt each other instead.
To learn first hand about the snakes, the leaking oil pipelines and exploding Bakken oil trains that are already killing people and ecosystems in the north.
One woman from the Indigenous Environmental Network said: Why do we call it Mother Earth? Because a mother keeps her child alive. We are making that impossible.
Most of all, my dust and ashes moments where when I did not know how to be an ally.
When I saw groups of white folks taking up too much space, trying to get into native rituals or decision making without permission or invitation.
When I made mistakes about where to be or what to say. I felt, with the weight of these pipelines and the legacy of colonialism, that I was doing everything wrong, that any kind of real allyship was impossible.
And then there were creation moments:
The world was made when I met children who have been born since I left. Kids who speak their native language for the first time in two generations and pray and play in it. When I witnessed elders healing from their trauma and teaching what they call “the old ways” again. When I exchanged gifts with old friends and they, slightly my senior, shouted: Look who grew up!
The world was made when I witnessed a room of native women leaders stand up and lead white allies in chanting: We stand to protect the water! We stand to protect the children! We stand to protect the land! We stand! We stand! We stand!
When I remembered that despite being a white person who by definition will mess up in this movement and must be vigilant about the space I take up- I have built relationships. Every year, I learn how to be better, how to do better. How to show love and honor and respect.
And on my last day, after being asked a few times by new friends to teach a Jewish song, I sang Elecha Adonai Ekrah for them and for a tribal elder and spiritual leader. I prayed for strength as we fight for the the planet. We all closed our eyes. Afterwards, the elder thanked me and my friend Cody said: we have good medicine to share with each other.
I saw people summoning all that nourishes and fortifies them as they fight for their ancestors and their descendants.
My Ancestors in the Water
There are multiple protector camps and I was camped at the main one, which sits between the Cannonball River and the Missouri River. Sometimes you can hear people shouting Mni Wichonni- “water is life” across from the river banks.
Camped between those two beautiful bodies of water, those two sacred places that we, as a country are trying to destroy in the name of oil, I saw that yes, water is life, yes my body and this planet are mostly water, and yes the faces of my ancestors and those who will come after were with me in that place.
When my former boss and tribal leader showed me a map of where he believes the Enbridge Corporation knowingly bulldozed a native grave site to remove evidence, I saw my Bubbie. Her face shining through a wall of water on that long march out of Egypt. Pogrom survivor, memory keeper, who once said, “Our family is buried in Europe. But even the graves are gone now.”
I witnessed my Bubbie’s fear for a long time. What kind of small, myopic world have we built where tragedy is only tragedy when it happens to me and mine? We are all of us bound up together. Her story is with me. Her spirit is with me. And my friends on Standing Rock would tell you their ancestors are there with them.
At a teach-in in Bismarck I heard young native organizers say again and again, “This is not only a native issue; this is a human rights issue that impacts us all. We are going to survive together, or we will die together.”
On this, the holiest night of the year, we reach inside and imagine we can change. We can make right our collective wrongs. The word Chet does not actually mean sin. It’s a term from archery meaning “missing the mark”. How then do we alter our pathways, moving towards the mark at the collective and personal levels?
How do we avoid letting the creation moments eclipse our need for humility and change?
How do we keep the dust and ashes from bogging us down with so much guilt and shame that we do not even try to act?
North Dakota is a beautiful, quiet, often forgotten place. The sky is vast and the plains are wide. I spent a lot of time walking in those spaces, getting grounded on my own.
I think to be an ally, means having one hand in each pocket and moving forward. Trying again. Making moments of learning about something bigger than our own failures or successes.
I learn a lot about myself as a Jew and a person when I go to Standing Rock- but it is not about me. That is not why I go there. And when I feel guilt or shame or pride- I slow myself down, I look at the walls of water on both sides of me, with my ancestors and descendants watching and I walk forward through that space.
I make sure to look up. To not only get stuck in my own head. To know that I am taking my Bubbie with me- even though while she was alive, from her own place of trauma she did not entirely understand why I went to live and work on Standing Rock. I am still taking her with me.
I am not giving up on living into the memories of my ancestors, familial and chosen, who fought for justice. I am redeeming for myself the memory of those who were too hurt too see beyond their own experiences- a struggle I have never had to face. I hope my descendants will do the same for me for all the limitations I do not know I possess.
On Yom Kippur, we annul all vows and begin the year anew. We commit to move our arrows closer to the mark. To walk with our ancestors and our descendants and our living communities as stronger, more compassionate people.
What do you need, in order to do that work tonight, tomorrow and in the year ahead?
Do you need to dig further into one pocket or the other to actually change?
Do you need to look up and see the faces in the water?
Can this sense of balance guide you somewhere new?
May we be blessed with a sense of balance in order to make lasting sustainable change.
May we face the world with an ability to hold its brokenness and its beauty.
May we remember:
Mni Wichoni. Water is life.
It ties each one of us to the rest of creation.
It is the vehicle of our liberation.
And in this moment of climate crisis and powerful resistance, may we see that the faces in the walls of water are not just the faces of those we call family, but of all people marking together towards justice, repair, and return.