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Out of Narrow Straits, But Now What?

Leonard Cohen at the Arena in Geneva, 27 October 2008

Each year the traditions of Passover ask us to talk ourselves out of a terrible bind. Mitzraim — Hebrew for Egypt — literally means “narrow straits.” The only way to get through this tight squeeze is telling the story of how we escaped long ago. And the more we embellish this story, the Haggadah says, the happier our happy ending is likely to be.

But now what? For the Israelites, understanding “what’s next?” after escaping bondage took an entire generation — 40 years wandering in the desert and their descendants are still asking where the story leads.

In March during the launch of Sounding Board at the JCCs of North America Professional Conference, a group of JCC leaders spent an afternoon thinking about how Leonard Cohen’s rethinking of ancient stories like Exodus can shape today’s communal purpose.

In 2012’s “Show Me the Place,” Cohen sings:

Show me the place
Where you want your slave to go
Show me the place I’ve forgotten, I don’t know
Show me the place, where the word became a man
Show me the place, where the suffering began

Participating in a communal calling with ancient roots demands at least an inkling of belief that our steps are not just dragging tired feet across hot sand, nor that our stories are merely words to repeat, but a journey seeking something greater than ourselves.

This year, at the age of 80 — that’s two biblical generations — Leonard Cohen offered us “Born in Chains”:

I was born in chains
But I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden
But the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer
Keep this secret
Blessed is the Name
The Name be praised

Like Cohen, is there a story we return to time and time again to describe what matters to us most? When we reflect upon our communities, are we willing to embellish our story, reinterpret it, or even start it over when we find ourselves in narrow straits? We need to consider the ways that our JCCs can open those straits, and become an essential part of the community’s reimagining of this story.

“Show me the place,” Cohen sings

Help me roll away the stone
Show me the place
I can’t move this thing alone

The chances are that if you are looking for something new in your community, there is someone nearby with a similar urge to navigate that narrow pathway with you and to help you move away that stone.


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