Sermons

Wade in the Water - A D'var Torah by Rev. Marili Moore on the Seventh Day of Pesah, April 22, 2017
Beth Tzedec
April 24 2017

Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water, children.
Wade in the Water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water, children.
Wade in the Water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

See those children all dressed in white?
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)
They must be the children of the Israelites.
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)

Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water, children.
Wade in the Water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

See those children dressed in black?
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)
They come a long way, ain’t turnin’ back.
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)

See those children all dressed in red?
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)
They must be the ones that Moses led.
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)

Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water, children.
Wade in the Water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

See those children all dressed up in blue?
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)
They must be the ones that made it through.
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)

Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water, children.
Wade in the Water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.


I am often reminded of songs when I reflect on the stories of the Torah. And, through those songs the heart of each story often opens up. For example, when I sing “Wade in the Water” (an old African-American spiritual) I can feel the hope that Moses and his people crossing the water, gave to those who later also suffered from slavery and needed that hope.

But this was not just a song about “spiritual” rescue, no, it was used for actual rescue by actual leaders. The greatest leader of the Underground Railway for escaping slaves (that went all the way from the American South to Canada) was Harriet Tubman. The “Railway” was a series of paths, hiding places and safe houses that were very dangerous to find. One night in 1849, after a life-time of brutal beatings, she decided to flee from slavery by herself. Always with the risk of being captured or killed, she not only freed herself from slavery, but journeyed back time and again (nineteen times in all)—to free her sister's family, her brother's family, and her aged parents, who couldn't even walk. In total, she saved over 300 “passengers.”

One of her methods was to sing coded songs to warn runaway slaves so that no-one would be caught. These songs were how the escaping slaves communicated. They had been able to take advantage of how their masters viewed them—as non-human, ignorant property, good only for brute labour. Learning to read was forbidden, but they did hear sermons, and were given particular hope by the Exodus story, of how the ancient Israelites journeyed out of Egypt. And, by using the very Biblical stories their masters had taught them, they were able to transmit practical information about their world and how to escape it. Really escape it successfully.

The spiritual “Wade in the Water” (which I sang at the opening) was one of the most famous of the “Code Songs” of the Underground Railroad because it was practical, as well as “spiritual.” As my teachers Kim & Reggie Harris wrote:

“Escaping slaves used this song both as an expression of hope and as a reminder to stay near water whenever possible. Rivers and streams could provide sustenance, transport, and, most importantly, cover from slave catchers.”

[Spoken in Love CD notes, 1995]

In other words, the only way to freedom was through the water. Whenever a fortunate slave heard Harriet Tubman’s voice calling from her hiding place, they knew to listen carefully, as her songs would tell them what to do. And, with only her ingenuity and her intuition, she brought many to a new life in Canada. But was that all she had? Listen to a newspaper article from the 1860's:

"When going on these journeys she often lay alone in the forests all night. Her whole soul was filled with awe of the mysterious Unseen Presence, which thrilled her with such depths of emotion, that all other care and fear vanished. Then she seem to speak with her Maker "as a man talketh with his friend;" her petitions had direct answers, and beautiful visions lifted her up above all doubt and anxiety into serene trust and faith. No-one can be a hero without this faith in some form; the sense that we walk, not in our own strength, but leaning on an almighty arm. Call it fate, destiny, what you will, Moses of old, Moses of to-day believes it to be Almighty God."

I love that phrase: "No-one can be a hero without this faith." One may well add, “No-one can be a hero on her (or his) own.”

We, too, then, can learn from the Biblical heroes and Biblical stories, that all these great journeys and miracles are not possible without the support of God. And how extraordinary that Moshe knew these things so clearly, in spite of the confusion of his upbringing, and his difficulties in taking on the role of "hero". Scholars, such as Joseph Campbell, tell us that Moshe’s story has all the elements of an accepted heroic narrative: a cruel persecutor (Pharaoh) near the time of his birth; the daughter, who finds the baby on water; an adoption into a new family; the acceptance of his cosmic task to overcome the new Pharaoh and rescue his people; the wonderful flight from tyranny, through water and through desert, to come to salvation.

These, Campbell says, are standard hero-myth issue. But even on the level of mythology, Campbell points out some fundamental differences about Moshe. Firstly, instead of being born a prince adopted into a lowly family, he is born poor and adopted into being a prince. This is backward from the normal state of mythical affairs. Also, and this is the crucial point, he does not get to the promised land of salvation. After all the years, and the work, and the struggle, he is only allowed to glimpse it. Moshe did not get to fulfill his heroic journey in the standard view.

But think of who did complete it—the people of Israel. As Campbell says: "[Who] entered Egypt were the Patriarchs, who emerged were the people." The real salvation, if you will, is of an entire people. In fact, in the Passover Haggadah, there is a saying:

"In every generation, one ought to regard himself as though [c’ee’lu] he had personally come out of Egypt."

[בכול דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כילו הוא יצא מימצריים]

But with the knowledge of that freedom from bondage comes many things, besides renewed strength and optimism. This is all wonderfully summarized in the very last verse of this week’s Parsha:

“There [at Marah] Adonai issued a law and decree for them [hoq u-mishpat] [חוק ומישפט] and put them to the test.And said, ‘If you listen carefully to Adonai Eloheicha, and do what is right in his sight, if you pay attention to his mitzvot and keep all his laws, I will not bring on you any of the diseases I brought on the Egyptians, for I am Adonai, who heals you.’ ”

To Rashi (if I interpret his comments correctly) “hoq u-mishpat” meant that Adonai (through Moshe) was beginning to teach the people the meaning of study and administration of justice—but only when they were on the other side of the sea, and establishing their own way of life. They were beginning to have a history, a distinctive identity, a new set of values. They were beginning to be their own heroes.

Or, to paraphrase Abraham Heschel in Man’s Quest for God (1954):

“[T]here is something in the world that the Bible does regard as a symbol of God. It is not a temple nor a tree, it is not a statue nor a star. The symbol of God is a person, every person.”

And, in this regard, Heschel compares the act of prayer to a betrothal:

“It is an act of God, falling in love with His people. But the engagement depends on righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy”.

God’s love requires a corresponding human action. Which is why I cherish the emphasis on both mercy and justice together in Jewish prayer. It is not enough to have high ideals, if people are neglected or do not receive justice. And so, even though it was put in the form of a test, it was just these characteristics which made up God’s challenge to Moshe’s desert wanderers. Survival is one thing, but flourishing is another, and care must be taken towards each other.

And so, we must also take on the responsibilities of the journey – know that it may not be you who complete it, but others around you who take on the task. There is something open-ended about le-dor va-dor [לדור ודור]. And there is so much to be passed on. As it says in Psalm 78:

"We will not hide it from our children; we will tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of Adonai, and his might, and the wonders that he has done."

Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water, children.
Wade in the Water,
God’s gonna trouble the water.

See those children all dressed up in blue?
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)
They must be the ones that made it through.
   (God’s gonna trouble the waters)

Wade in the Water,
Wade in the Water, children.
Wade in the Water,
God’s gonna trouble the water …


The Rev. Marili Moore (B.Sc., M.Div.) is a member of one of Canada's most prominent family in the arts, and is herself a professional singer. During 15 years as Collections Manager at the Royal Ontario Museum she worked closely with scholars from a wide range of cultural and scientific disciplines. After graduation from Trinity College in 1999 she was ordained into the Anglican Church of Canada, and has maintained an interest in Interfaith Dialogue. She was a member of the Canadian Jewish Dialogue of Toronto, and also studied at Hebrew University Jerusalem towards an M.A. in Jewish Studies. She is particularly interested in how culture shapes the transmission and understanding of Scripture.