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Through a Narrow Pass – 3/31/2013

There is a story about a little squirrel who stored up nuts for the winter by squeezing them through a small hole in a hollow tree. Through coincidence and tragic misunderstanding, that squirrel found himself forced through that very same hole, and fell onto a pile of his own nuts. Down in the dark he was far removed from his life in the forest. He couldn’t hear the birds or play among the tree branches or see his beloved squirrel life-partner. But the prospect of squeezing back through that tiny little hole did not sound easy, and there were all those nuts to eat, at least.

Sometimes the only way forward is along a slim and treacherous path. And when that is the case, it can be tempting to ask, ‘what’s so great about going forward, anyhow?’. In the Passover story, the tale of the ancient Israelites escaping from Egypt, things were very bad from the very start. The people were utterly oppressed, forced to make bricks and build walls for Pharoah. Their lives were dictated, constrained, and destroyed on a whim, and they were denied the right even to follow the faith of their hearts, and worship according to their own understanding. But when the Israelites set out from bondage, a whole new collection of problems began. There was little to eat, and the desert was dangerous. A generous estimate of their route from the ancient Egyptian city of Ramses to the East bank of the Jordan river near Jericho would have a distance of about 300 miles. It took them 40 years to complete it. So it is understandable that some folks complained and asked, ‘Why did we leave? Even if we did not have our freedom in Egypt, we were fed.’

The word in Hebrew for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means literally a ‘narrow place’. The hardship and trial of the escape and the wandering that followed speak to an all-too universal truth: liberation is never cheaply bought. It is always a struggle to become free. The story of Exodus, the story of Passover, is the creation story of Judaism itself. It establishes many of the religion’s most important commandments: to welcome the stranger, to set free the captive, to pursue justice until true peace is finally achieved. So the tradition understands the passage through that narrow place as a birth. Just as each of us had to pass through a narrow opening, in order to leave the bodies of our mothers behind, and enter the world as beings unto ourselves.

There is also a narrow place in the Easter story. Jesus of Nazareth taught for a little while, in the Galilee and in Judeah. He taught peace between neighbors and justice for the poor. He proclaimed a kingdom, built not from war, but from loving kindness. Something in his teaching made the greatest empire of his age very, very afraid. And so they killed him for it, and he was buried in a cave.

The story goes, that after

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he had been dead a few days, the women who were closest to him – some of his students, and his mother – went to where he was buried, as part of their way of saying goodbye. For the most part, no one wants to be overwhelmingly sad, to be stricken with grief and stuck in one place. But when we lose someone we truly love there is a powerful gravity to that sorrow that pulls us and holds us. And in this way, the hope of the people who had followed Jesus was all bound up and restricted by grief, and it all fit into that cave.

The women went there, and they entered through a narrow place, and they came back out the same way – but something was different. Whatever they saw, whatever they heard, whatever they experienced there, though it has been argued and fought over for centuries, is wildly beside the point. What matters is not whether there was some miracle, some hallucination, or some invention, though people have killed each other for all three arguments these past two thousand years. Whatever those women found in that cave, they returned to their community with glad news: the kingdom is still among us; the teaching need not die with the teacher. Out of a dark place, through a narrow opening, hope reentered their lives.

The English Unitarian, Beatrix Potter, wrote the story of that unfortunate squirrel from before. Don’t worry; he did eventually make it out of that tree. Ms. Potter is famous today for her beautifully illustrated stories for children about mischievous animals and their humanlike ways. But she might have preferred to have been famous for her contributions to science. Beatrix had a passion for the study of nature; her captivating pictures came from studying the woods and meadows where she lived and making careful notes and drawings. Growing up in the 19th century, her possible course through life was narrow and limited. When she submitted a paper to the leading society of naturalists in Britain, it had to be read aloud by someone else, because as a woman she could not even attend the meeting. Despite the limits imposed by a sexist society, she found a way forward, putting her gifts to use as an author. An imperfect solution, disappointing perhaps, yet still very grand.

In the face of tragedy or injustice, whether global or personal, when the only course before us leaves no room on either side, we have but two choices. The first is to stay where we are – this will generally seem safe, because the danger will be of a sort we have gotten accustomed to. The second possibility is to roll back the stone, to step out into the desert, and to get born as many times as is necessary to truly live. At this season – of the renewal of hope, of the remembering of freedom, and of the return of spring – may each of us, and all of us together, have the courage to move.


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Beverly, MA 01915


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