“Whereas a cow extends its neck in a straight line, a camel curves its neck.” So remarks R Shimon b Elazar in Talmud Yerushalmi Eruvin (2:1, 20a). Strange as it sounds, camels and cows teach us something deep and important about freedom, redemption, and life. Sometimes straight lines are what we need; other times, curves work better. The categories – akumah (zigzag or curved) and peshutah (straight or direct) – come to us from rabbinic deliberations regarding carrying on Shabbat. An eruv (plural eruvin) is a public space that is marked off so that it becomes semi-private and therefore an area in which one may carry on Shabbat. In the realm of eruvin curves and straight lines matter. One is like a camel; the other like a cow.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, 11th century France) borrow’s the language of Eruvin to describe the Israelite’s path out of Egypt. “God led the people roundabout” says the Torah (Exodus 13:18). Says Rashi, “God led them roundabout (taking them) from the direct/predictable route (derekh ha-peshuta) to the zigzag/circuitous route (derekh ha-‘akumah).” Redemption won’t come in an instant; no express train from Egypt to the Promised Land. This long march to freedom will consist of forty years of zigging and zagging.
Following Aviva Zornberg’s delicious insight, the curvy path will be intellectual and emotional as well as geographic. In her rich words “places of vision and faith” and “places of doubt and revision” will alternate all the way from the crossing of the Red Sea to the crossing of the Jordan River a generation and more later. Think of it as the Torah’s version of ‘two steps forward and one step back.’ We’ll eventually get there, but it won’t be quick. Camels and their curves seem better suited to such a journey than do cows and their straight lines.
[Agnolo Bronzino ‘The Crossing of the Red Sea’ (1542) Palazzo Vecchio, Florence]
The dramatic high point of the Exodus narrative – the crossing of the Red Sea – isn’t the story’s ending. It’s just the beginning of the road, a long and winding one which truly never disappears. The road, to summon up another popular culture reference, really does go on forever. And while I’m at it, the zigzag path moves back and forth between moments of intense, shining light and instances of darkness and near blindness; it’s truly a long, strange trip.
We often encounter Parashat Beshallah on MLK Weekend. It’s a powerful and fruitful confluence. Dr. King’s famous words, part of an address to a Southern Christian Leadership Council gathering in 1967, strike me as a poignant and brilliant reflection on the zigzag path to freedom. “When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe, working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” Long arc, moments of despair and darkness, lots of zigs and zags. And also, the discovery of ‘a way out of no way’ and the ever present promise of transformation. That’s the real life story of freedom, then and now.