Splitting The Red Sea
What a week this was!
I don’t mean the week that past for me personally as much as I mean the week that the Jews in Egypt lived through as is narrated in this week’s parshah, BiShalach. Before you start mumbling complaints under your breath about contrived introductions to a dvar Torah that I wanted to write, I’ll admit that the realities of the parshah resonate more vividly to me because of the way I experienced the past week.
I am writing this letter Monday night. Last week at this time I was out of the operating room after my hip replacement and spending the moments playing with a device that releases pain killers whenever you press the button. The result was that I was virtually pain free. This is very different than what I had been through vicariously when I saw other people emerge from their surgical nirvana. I wasn’t alone for even a moment over the next several days. Family and friends kept an eye on me, supplied me with everything they could imagine I would want (from playing cards to a very serious commentary on Kohelet). I returned home on Thursday to more and more of the same. The light of chessed appeared in many different forms. Each visitor left something of their own personality with me. The real question is “what am I going to do with it all” the illumination and grace that I experienced. The easiest thing would be moving on. Rashbi comments on the way the Jews in ancient Egypt felt the morning after the revelation of Shechina. He says that the Jews were overwhelmed by what they had seen the night before. They were people who were broken by their slavery both of body and of spirit, and suddenly they heard the angelic praise of G-d’s breaking all the rules. Their bodies could hardly contain their souls, and the dazzling clarity left the banal occurrences of normal physical life unappealingly gray. They felt imprisoned by the stress of facing up to the limits that are inherent to getting through their days, which now looked materialistic ordinary and worst of all limiting. The drama that unfolds in the Parshah reflects what was going on inside them. Pharaoh didn’t disappear. Neither does the yetzer hara, or the conflicted reality we face when material reality feels stifling, they became aware that he was in hot pursuit. The sea was in front of them, the desert and its horrors on all sides. Just yesterday they had enough faith to drop everything and head into the unknown. They had seen miracles that no one had ever seen before. And now they are locked into the grip of Today.
I don’t want the moments of great light and human kindness to fade the next time someone informs me non-verbally that they would prefer to get on the bus before me, or to let the disappointment when someone is revealed as being less than I wish they were blind me to the goodness that I have and am still experiencing from so many people. Finding ways to guard the moments that are worth guarding is something of a skill. It’s a skill that Hashem wants us all to learn. It is for that reason that Hashem didn’t have the Jews leave Egypt and find themselves in Eretz Yisrael after a short jaunt through Philistine territory via the western coast. They needed to feel trapped from all sides and rediscover their latent emunah. Then they needed to see the sea split.
Earning a living and finding a shidduch are both compared to splitting the sea. You have to reach a point of being fully aware that you aren’t your own salvation if you want these times to give you some light, and not just entrap you in heavier and heavier darkness. You have to be willing to both cry out, and to enter the waters…Sometimes in a concrete sense this means when you feel trapped by your indecision, or lack of seeming options, you pray, look at what your choices are, use your common sense, ask advice, and then close your eyes and jump! Just do what you have to do, and live in the moment Hashem gave you. The name of the man who jumped into the sea first was Nachshon ben Aminadav. Every so often, you need to step back, see the light you once saw, follow his example and just jump.
I had a sort-of-Nachshon experience. The woman who organized the Shabbaton where I fell didn’t seem to make much of an effort to find out what had happened to me after I disappeared by ambulance Shabbos morning. I was taken to Shaarei Tzedek which is a far walk from the hotel, so I wasn’t expecting anyone over Shabbos, but I was sure that immediately after Shabbos she would either come or call. She didn’t. I found myself repeating the story of how I fell to a revolving entourage of doctors, interns, nurses, etc. Each one asked about the response from the Shabbaton management. I decided to jump into the sea. Not only wouldn’t I fall into the trap of cynical judgment in my responses to them, I decided not to feel them. The Torah requires that we judge each other fairly which means not jumping to negative conclusions when there are other possibilities of interpreting situations. I searched my mind for possible excuses but didn’t come up with much. I finally decided (and for me that was the Nachshon moment) that the words I have to force myself to both think and say are, “I don’t know”. It didn’t always feel real, but I kept on going back to the IDK formula anyway. Today I found out that the reason she was out of touch is that her son got engaged that very night!! Of course she had to live out her story, in the ongoing narrative of her family. I have no way of knowing how many times she may have tried to call me since the phone was ringing constantly that motzoi Shabbos. I do know now that she was where she was supposed to be-at the only engagement party her son will ever have, G-d willing. I didn’t have enough imagination to think of this possibility, but knowing that halachah demands that you don’t judge others without knowing the entire story saved me from negative obsessing. The Baal Shem Tov said, “You are where your mind is”, and halachah kept me where I wanted to be. The only way you can make it when you are on the edge of the water is if you can recall the moments of clarity that are part of life. This is why remembering the exodus is so central. Making this clarity real only comes through knowing what Hashem wants of you moment by moment.
My family started a Mishneh Brura kollel in my husband’s A.H. memory. It is dedicated to sponsoring learning practical halachah. Although women don’t have a commandment to study Torah, they can gain the merit of learning through supporting this sort of endeavor. Unlike most learning program, this one has no expenses since the members learn wherever they want. They have to complete tests that my sons put together, and later grade. As long as they learn the halacha that they commit to which comes to about a half hour an evening, they receive $120 a month. You (or you and a couple or more friends) can sponsor a young man and in return you will actually get half of their reward for the learning. A binding contract (which is called a Yissachar-Zevulun agreement) was put together by a Rav, so that you can actually know which specific person is learning in your merit. You can email me (email@example.com) for details.
It gives you some strength if you want to jump into the sea.
A View From My Hospital Bed
I am writing this letter from Hadassah’s orthopedic department, room eight. It is a fairly large room with windows that face greater Mount Scopus. My roommates are as varied as the Eastern Jerusalem scenery that I face. One is a nun in her seventies. She was born in Barcelona, and entered the convent near the Mammilla mall as a young woman. She is a kindergarten teacher; her charges are unwanted children of both the Christian and Muslim communities to whom she is totally dedicated. Interestingly, she didn’t spend many hours at prayer; she made due with about fifteen minutes worth of devotions, spending the rest of her time recovering from her surgery, and entertaining the nuns who came to visit her throughout the day. Some of them were familiar faces. I had met them at the hospice where my friend Marcie Alter (who many of you know through these letters) has been living for the past six years. Sister Martalla was accompanied by her assistant, a young Muslim woman named Sabrina who has been with her for the last fourteen years. It took only a few minutes to discover (using my bad Arabic and her somewhat better English) that she lives in Ras al Amud, not far from Jabel Mukaber the nest of some of the worst terror organizations, including the one responsible for the killings in Har Nof. She is one of the most apolitical people I ever met. Although she must be in her late thirties, her interests were those of most American teenagers-clothes socializing and fun. In the melting pot of Hadassah nothing seemed discordant about our sharing time and experiences. My other roommate was a devout Muslim woman, who spent hours praying out loud to the tune of what those of you who went to Neve recall from the 4am muezzin that we all hear in Northern Har Nof. What bound us together was the unspoken sisterhood of having met Dr. Mattan, the orthopedic surgeon who we all got to know….
My own acquaintance with Dr. M. began on Motzei Shabbos. I was at the Leonardo-Plaza for a Shabbaton. My youth, high energy, and beauty must have deceived the organizer into thinking that the perfect room for me would be the one with a view of the Old City on the 15th floor. There is a Shabbos elevator, but I wasn’t sure whether it was meant for general usage or just for people who are elderly or disabled. I sent my daughter to ask the famous authority, Rav Neventzal’s son, to whom the elderly Rav often refers people. He told her that it is fine for someone of my age (again!!!) to use it, but if I wish to go the extra mile, I may feel free to do so. I saw this as a challenge (and a convenient escape from the reality of no longer being in what some euphemistically all, “my first youth). It took me no time and little effort to climb to my floor. The next morning, when got up early and when I saw the splendor of Yerushalaim before me, it was all worth it. I left at about 8am for the Great Synagogue to hear the famous chazzan Chaim Adler who perform (no… that’s not the right word…) on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh. I tripped on the concrete stairs via my slippers near the 14th floor. I guess I missed the Fountain of Youth this week. I spent about five distressing moments on the floor (with a pair of tourists and two eleven year old boys in their Shabbos suits stepping over me gingerly as though it is the most natural thing in the world to see a woman stretched out on the floor). A young man named Menachem Weiss stopped in his tracks. He offered his help with extreme care and courtesy. He went down to the desk, summoned help, walked back up and helped me into a chair. The emergency medicine squad soon appeared and recommended that I go to the hospital. Weiss had kindly gone to the synagogue and asked a religious American doctor to give his opinion as to what I should do. He agreed with the recommendation, and soon my daughter Chani and I were off to Shaarei Tzedek. This is where I had the first inkling of what I was meant to learn from the entire (mis)adventure.
I was stationed in the Emergency Room corridor. The woman in the bed behind mine, Batya Maklis, was the no-hold-bar most positive person that I ever met. The staff, G-d’s providence, meeting us, were all like gifts wrapped in beautiful packaging to her. All of the residual negativity that I felt faded, and I realized that meeting her was one of the most important things that had happened to me in a long time. After being examined, we consulted and were advised to transfer to Hadassah Har Tzofim. In case I didn’t get the message straight, the ambulance driveron Motzei shabbos told us that Dr. Mattan was our man. He recommended a hip replacement, and the surgery was set for the next day, Sunday. By this time, I was feeling really well as long as I didn’t move around. My second lesson was that you can think out of the box. I notified the people in England (where I had planned to speak on Monday when I ACTUALLY had the surgery…) and then asked the head nurse if I could do the shiur here. Yes. The nun, Muslim woman, and Sabrina were all pro. It was an unbelievable scene.
The third (and thus far last) important lesson came via one of my visitors. Esther Pollard came by. I was so moved that she extended herself in this way. It would be so easy for her to create a world around the embitterment of living in a world that used her husband Jonathan’s information to destroy the Iraqi reactor and then turned against him. Instead I found myself facing a well-dressed, friendly woman who gave me a get-well teddy bear. There were other women who came who are the Who’s Who of Torah Judaism. Lesson four- great people are humble.
So I’ll end off now by giving you a vision of the entire kaleidoscope- the nun and company watching me set up for the Torah shiur, The people like Batya Macklis and Ester Pollard who break the stereotypes, and finally the really chashuv rebbitzens who gave such wonderful lessons in humility.
Most of all, thanking you for all of your tefillos, I remain,