Bodies of water loom large in general and biblical history. Somehow, turning points seem to happen on the banks of a river or overlooking the sea. In the biblical tradition, the first liberation account, a model for others to come, took root at the crossing of the Red Sea, a moment we mark on the seventh day of Passover.
In American history, the Delaware River, which waters and softens a part of our Garden State, looms large for that historic moment recently commemorated once again, where Washington led his troops across the river from Pennsylvania to the New Jersey side, to march onward to Trenton where the Revolutionary War’s real tide would turn.
And so it was that a few years ago I and my family journeyed to Washington Crossing to watch the annual re-enactment of that military turning point, an event that is played out in full dramatic form, with costumes and other regalia. It has become more than just a Dec. 25 tradition for that area. It is an affirmation of a key American legend that anchors us in the history of this country’s Revolutionary War – except that the year I was there, more than 50 years after this practice of revisiting history was begun, the famed military move did not take hold. The heavy rains from previous days generated a current that Gen. Washington and his would-be troops could not go against.
I personally saw it ironic that the year that I chose to be a part of this event, an unlikely enthusiast given my Canadian roots, that another piece of history would be made. Wouldn’t you know that the year we chose to observe history remade, after 54 apparent successful crossings, would be the one that would see the boats flounder and nearly float downstream.
But there is a great teachable moment that emerges from these episodes of error in re-enactment. Our societies are rooted, born, and based in myth and narrative. We are carried forward by the tides of what has been told to us for generations. It is important that we practice history in the hope that we might even make it happen again. But even when we fail to carry out the same drama, in all of its detail and excitement and to the same level of success, we offer added strength to the story.
In Jewish tradition we are constantly reliving history through the events of our calendar. We literally taste and digest freedom through the foods of the Passover seder and we visit vulnerability and are fortified by our faith by dwelling in our sukkot. Can we absolutely reclaim and feel the full import of these moments? That is hard to say.
But by daring to replay these events in our trek through history we keep the story alive. What is important in all of this is not whether or not Washington’s replacements this year or last succeeded in the same feat that he allegedly achieved at that very same spot; but that we care to try to relive the moment and, in so doing, claim and appropriate the experience for our lives today.
Tradition and faith are very much rooted in the stuff of stories. We as a people have been driven and propelled across many seas in search of freedom in newfound lands on account of earlier successes by others, who dared to dream and do in the pursuit of new better lives.
Immigrants to this country, modeling their lives after the ancient Israelites, endured fearful and fateful crossings because they saw something better on the other side. What need not be lost on any who stood and watched with anticipation at Washington Crossing to see a glimpse of history repeated is the power of the story and the claim of the narrative. These accounts still matter and guide us even when we cannot see them fully re-enacted, because the story has not only survived but endured. It is more than just nostalgia. Nostalgia is a sentiment – a sense of what was. One cannot easily explain it. One needs to have been there, involved with the original, or have experienced something like it, to be able to appreciate a nostalgic moment. Like a plane ticket written for a specific traveler, it is non-transferable.
A narrative on the other hand, if properly cared for and shared with others, even if there are glitches in re-enactment, has the power to persist, prevail, and inspire.The story if told right and often enough, repeated and re-enacted to whatever degree of success is more than myth; it is our license to continue to live and benefit from the lessons of history.
Reb Ben Zion Schenker, a celebrated chasidic composer and ba’al tefillah, once crossed the Red Sea in a glass bottom boat; and at that moment was swept up in the currents of a much earlier time. Looking at the waters beneath him he was inspired to compose a beautiful melody to the passage from the Hallel prayer “B’zeit Yisrael mi-Mitzrayim,” coming to Israel from Egypt, that so eloquently recaptures that great moment of salvation, a tune which our family sings as part of our seder experience.
And so, as I stood on the banks of the Delaware, the unrealized recent efforts of George Washington and his crew didn’t fail me. They instead strengthened that story; and with its historic antecedent from this coming week’s holiday Torah reading, and through their efforts in earnest to re-engage with the past, gave both events a voice for today.