Today's guest post comes from my long time/real life friend, Jenna Kemp. (I readily admit to playing favorites; Jenna is mine.) I love the way she thinks...
I’ve been in the middle since the day I was born. I was born in middle of the year, in the middle of two days, in the middle of alive and dead, and I later became a middle child. This is actually a funny story. Nobody really knows when my true birthday is. It was around midnight, going from June 26th to June 27th, that I exited my mother’s body. And so the story goes that my lungs were not pulling this new outside air correctly (or at all) and everyone understandably got a little worried. So the doctor took me in his arms, laid me on the table and started doing little baby CPR (or whatever it was) on me. There were several moments/minutes/seconds of tension in which my mom was calling out to my dad to see what was happening, my dad was telling my mom everything was fine, my dad would look over the doctor’s shoulder and ask if everything really was fine, the doctor would say it was going to be ok, and the information would bounce back to the original inquirer. This went on for what probably seemed like way too long for all parties involved, especially me who was busy simultaneously being born and dying. But eventually the doc got my tiny newborn body to work and everyone took a moment to breathe a sigh of relief. Once the tension of my seemingly premature and imminent death was released, the doctor looked at his watch and, noting that it was 12:01 am, declared, “Eh, let’s call it the 27th.” And that is the story of my (undefined) birthday.
It’s not just when you or your baby might die that the middle is uncomfortable; the middle generally seems hard for people to tolerate. I think our minds naturally want to take the chaos of the human experience and order it, give it meaning, imbue it with some kind of purpose. Through the ordering of the world we get things like religion, mathematics, gender, the color wheel, and the literary motif of the hero’s journey – to name a few. Some people think that these things are inborn, innate, or “True,” but I tend to think that we don’t actually know, so we pretend like we do in order to be able to wake up, take our kids to school, go to work, brush our teeth, buy groceries, fall asleep, and do it all over again without losing our minds or our will to live. Now I’m not saying that some of these things aren’t important – some of them are very important precisely because they do what they were designed to do: they give us purpose.
What I struggle with is when the categories we create get so firm that we forget to appreciate the middle places. Instead we condemn them because they mix up the things on which we so heavily rely. This is why Galileo was persecuted. He mixed up religious categories. This is why books get banned. They mix up racial and ethical categories. This is why many queer people are injured and killed. They mix up categories of gender and sexuality. The reason I struggle with this firmness of categories is because the beauty of life is in the middle places and in the tension between our categories. Beauty, true beauty, God’s beauty, is in the middle, betwixt, between, underneath, and outside of the boxes we create. We live, whether we want to see it or not, right smack in the middle. Existence is chaos and we are in it! What I absolutely love, more than most things, is when the categories we make recognize and celebrate the middle spaces as spaces where we meet something both fully transcendent and completely imminent. The Jewish celebration of Pesach embraces the middle as the place where we meet God.
Pesach is the celebration of the Passover and the Exodus from Egypt. Pesach not only recognizes, but it commemorates and celebrates the middle. The story takes a leader who is in the middle – Moses, who is both a biological child of Hebrew slaves and child adopted into the royal Egyptian court – and follows him as he leads the Hebrew people out of slavery and straight into the middle of the desert. As his people remind us over and over throughout the books of the Pentateuch, they were fine in Egypt. Sure they were doing forced labor, but their lives were predictable and they got enough food and at least they had a place to lay their heads at night! But Pesach says, “You were living in an oppressive place and now you are free to experience the unpredictability of the middle!” Hooray?
Wouldn’t it have been easier and much more comfortable if the Hebrews simply left Egypt and arrived in Canaan? If only it was a story about how Pharaoh listened intently to Moses, and after hearing his argument, recognized his own brutalization of the Hebrew people, wished them well, and released them to serve their God in their own land. It would have been nice, if, upon leaving, the Israelites simply walked into Canaan and lived happily ever after. But God had something else in mind – something that isn’t so… well, boring.
While the middle is uncomfortable and just terrible sometimes, it is in the middle that we experience God and ourselves in a way that is not possible when things are clear cut and easy. The beginning of Exodus walks us through some of this. There are ten plagues that fall upon the Egyptians beginning with their water source turning to blood and ending with the firstborn son of every Egyptian family dying. As the tension of the story builds, we the reader wonder, “Will Pharaoh allow his entire kingdom to be destroyed simply to keep some people in slavery?” By asking the Pharaoh to let his people go, Moses is introducing a middle. The Hebrew people are now living in the tension between Pharaoh – the most powerful man they know – and Moses – a self-appointed representation of themselves. Eventually, when Pharaoh is holding his own dead son in his arms, he brings Moses into his court and says, “Fine. Go.”
The Jewish observance of Passover remembers the tension in this story quite well. Among the Jewish holidays, there are some happy holidays and there are some more somber holidays. At Purim, we read the book of Esther, dress up in costumes, and are commanded to drink so much that we can’t tell the difference between Haman (bad guy) and Mordechai (good guy). I kid you not. Then, there is Yom Kippur on which we literally put on our death shrouds, deny all bodily needs, and repent of our multitude of sins (some of which, I am quite sure, are committed on Purim). However, Pesach is in the middle. We celebrate by having a Seder meal during which we recount the story of the exodus from Egypt. In this meal, we are supposed to drink four cups of wine (not quite the level of Purim, but, depending on your alcohol tolerance, enough to start getting giggly) and remember the slavery from which we came. When we recount the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptians, it is here that we reduce our joy. As we recount each plague, we dip our finger into our wine and place a drop on our plate. After ten drops accumulate on our plates, we experience the joy of gaining our freedom from slavery, but we simultaneously mourn the loss of life. Our celebration is in the middle.
But the story doesn’t end with the plagues and our subsequent release. After Moses (with God’s help) eventually wrestles the Hebrew people from the firm hand of Pharaoh, and before he leads them into the middle of the Sinai Peninsula, he leads them into the middle of the sea. As Moses holds his staff over the waters, the sea splits right down the middle, and the Hebrew people are able to walk through the muddy, wet birth canal of the Sea of Reeds. It is here, between Egypt and Sinai, between slavery and freedom, between the womb and fresh air, between the death stench of Egypt and the promise of new life that the Hebrew people learn who their God is. As Moses and his people cross through the middle, the waters crash down on top of the Egyptians behind them and hundreds, if not thousands, of men are killed – crushed by walls of water – in order that the Hebrew people might be able to cross from the middle place of Egypt to the middle place of the sea to the middle place of Sinai. It is here, after experiencing the oppression in Egypt, after witnessing the death toll and after gaining liberation by crossing the Sea of Reeds, that Moses speaks one of the central prayers of Jewish practice. He asks, “Mi camocah bah’elim Adonai? Who is like you, oh Adonai, among the gods? Mi camocah n’edar baqodesh nora tehilot oseh pheleh? Who is like you majestic in holiness – one who is awesome in splendor, doing marvelous things?”
It is when he looks back on the middle-ness he has just experienced that he recognizes that which is inconceivably larger than himself and his community. And this something – this God – this awesome-wonder-doer – this thing that stands above and apart from everything he has ever known – is that which is intimately with him. God stands as a pillar of fire and a cloud of smoke; God stands visible to the community. God is involved, and what causes Moses to most recognize it? The middle.
And here’s a fun secret: the story is not over. Though Moses and the Hebrew people have crossed through the middle of the plagues and through the middle of the sea, they have yet to cross through the middle of Sinai and enter the land. And here’s the thing about the land. They have to work to stay in it (and we learn that they don’t do a very good job). The promise of land is the promise of more middle.
When we think we’ve arrived, we’ve arrived into the middle. When we think there is such a thing as resolution, we are fooling ourselves and are in for a major disappointment. Life is the middle. Life is the tension. Life is the cycle of slavery to freedom to Sinai to land to exile to return to Diaspora. We are never settled. If we are to meet God or to meet meaning or some semblance of truth in this life, it is in this unsettled existence of the middle. It is when we reflect upon our middle experiences that we can look back with wonder and say, “Who is like you, oh Adonai, among the Gods – you who are wholly inconceivable and you who are intimately present?”
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Jenna Kemp is currently working on her MA in biblical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. She focuses on literary readings of narrative in Hebrew Bible and for her thesis is working on the Jacob cycle in Genesis. While she grew up in the Evangelical world of Christianity, she is currently studying to convert to Judaism (a one year process) at a local synagogue. She lives in Oakland with her partner Malka and their dog Leviathan. All of them love Jamie the VWM.
*Jamie loves them, too.
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Are you celebrating the middle places?
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Are you celebrating the middle places?