As a child, I loved Watership Down. Based on a book by Richard Adams, it was turned into an animated film in 1972. On rainy days, I kept going back to it, and my love has continued as an adult.
In Watership Down, a group of rabbits leave the only warren they have ever known to build a new burrow. They promise each other they will find a “strange and marvelous place where no one even stops to notice that you stare about you.”
Fiver, a small, stammering rabbit has profound visions. His brother, Hazel, explains them to the other rabbits and convinces them it’s time to leave. On the way, these escapees miraculously cross a great body of water, pass over a treacherous highway, lodge with suspicious friends and find terrifying enemies. But ultimately they reach their destination: an enormous, fertile hill, topped by a fruit tree.
As an adult, I can now see that it was an allegory for the Exodus from Egypt. In fact, now that I look back, I can see how every event in Watership Down maps on somehow to a story in the Torah.
I come back to it with new eyes and realise that Watership Down made the biblical story relatable to me in a unique way. From my perspective as a child in England, I had no concept of what a desert was like and I’d never been to a Middle Eastern city.
But I knew the joy of tall trees and long grass. I knew what it was like to find the perfect hill on a warm spring day. Somehow the rabbits felt real in a way that even Moses and Miriam did not.
Don’t get me wrong. This was no pastoral idyll. Parts of the film were terrifying. Some people look back and wonder how it was even classed as suitable for children. It includes death, peril and violence between bunnies.
But the most frightening part of all is not the journey the rabbits take. It’s Fiver’s vision of what will happen if they don’t leave. He imagines the rabbits trapped in their burrows, squeezed to death as men filled in the holes. He foresees them all being crushed in the tight confines underground.
That is their Egypt. I don’t know whether Richard Adams had any knowledge of Judaism. In fact, I highly doubt it. But, somehow, with this image, he captured a great Jewish esoterical tradition about Egypt.
In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. The Zohar, a great medieval exploration of biblical mysticism, breaks down this word. Tzar, in Hebrew, is a narrow place. Tzarim is the plural: narrow places. The prefix ‘mi’ means ‘out of.’ Mitzrayim: “out of confined spaces.” Egypt is the narrow straits we must escape.
Today is a special Shabbat in the liturgical calendar. This morning, we read the very last of Exodus. Tomorrow, we start the new month of Nissan. It is called Shabbat haChodesh – the Shabbat of the Month. We leave Exodus and begin the month of the festival of Pesach, the celebration of our liberation.
That liberation does feel quite imminent to me, even if the Jewish calendar doesn’t quite match up with the government’s road map. We are on our way out of confinement and heading for open spaces.
The most profound moment on that journey for me has been getting my first dose of the vaccine. About a month ago, faith leaders were summoned by our local authorities to get the life-saving injection.
I knew that this was not just important but felt like a holy moment. In the build up to being jabbed, I consulted with all my colleagues about what blessing I should recite when it happened. Everyone had different opinions.
Some suggested we should say “rofei hacholim” – God heals the sick. Others thought the best prayer was “shehechiyanu,” the blessing that thanks God for allowing us to live to see the day. In the end, I said “hatov vehameitiv”: God is good and does God. It’s the prayer you say when something happens for your benefit and the benefit of the entire community.
This week, Reform Judaism distributed our own liturgy for what we can see when the vaccine comes our way. Rabbi Paul Freedman has carefully compiled a single a4 document with words to recite in Hebrew and in English.
The prayers are familiar, but the opening verses took me by surprise. Rabbi Freedman has chosen to start us off with a line from Psalm 118:
מן המצר קראתי יה
Out of the meitzar I called to God.
The meitzar. The thing that causes distress. The small and confined place. The thing that presses us down.
Out of the meitzar. Out of the narrow spaces. Out of Egypt.
Yes, that is truly what receiving the vaccine means. For over a year, we have been in narrow spaces. My French colleagues even call lockdown ‘confinement.’ We have been in our homes. We have been stuck in our front line workplaces and unable to go any further. We have only seen each other in small boxes, the narrow Zoom frames on our small computer screens. These have been our Mitzrayim.
And now, as we turn to the new month of Nissan, we can finally see a way out. Our own exodus is beginning to feel tangible. In only two weeks, we will do our seder again online, and we will tell each other that we are leaving Egypt. We will promise each other to see each other next year in person. And this time, God willing, it will be possible.
So do take your vaccine when your turn comes. The Jewish community is responding well to the call from medical experts to get immunised, and I’m thrilled every time I hear that one of you has had the jab.
If you have doubts and want to speak to a medical professional about what it involves, just ask and I will happily put you in touch with someone.
Please don’t hesitate or wait because you think someone else might be more deserving. Our epidemiologists and ethicists all say the same thing: when the doctors say it’s your turn, take your turn. Every immunised person protects many more people in the community.
We have known confinement and narrow spaces. We have lived in Egypt. And now we have been given our own little miracle. The vaccine is a sign and wonder. With an outstretched arm, you can receive it, and thank God that you will live to see another season.
The wide expanse awaits us. Soon, like the rabbits of Watership Down, we too will congregate in open spaces. We will sit under fruit trees on perfectly verdant hills surrounded by family and friends.
Our own Promised Land is in reach.