The winter is the best time for learning. There’s something about the long nights and the cold and wind that makes a cup of tea and a sefer very appealing. This week’s Parshah is so full of ideas that it’s hard to stay centered on one of them. Especially when there are lots of books, and many flavors of tea just waiting…
One of the most profound ideas about G-d’s relationship to you as an individual is that He challenges you to the point that you feel that you can’t bear much more, but at the same time He shows you every morning that He believes in you, and is giving you another day of life to prove it.
This isn’t just you. Get up from the computer right now, and if you are near your sfarim (Jewish books), take a quick look at the maps that many of the Chumashim have. If you look at the Stone Chumash, or Living Torah you will find one easily. If you don’t own either one, maybe think about how easy it would be to follow up what the Torah has to say about the week you are in if you had one…The map will tell you that the route the Jews took out of Egypt made no sense. They had a destination, but they headed out in the wrong direction. This was no accident; Hashem was leading them.
What are you supposed to think when it seems to you that Hashem is leading you astray? For so many of you, when you content yourself with a cursory glance at your life, that’s what you see. You want to be married, but you aren’t. You want to be financially secure, but it isn’t happening. Your kids aren’t poster kids for Be Frum Today. What does He want from you? The well-meaning people who are in your life may have told you that Hashem never gives anyone a test that they can’t handle. Do you find yourself going into denial? Do you find yourself thinking “I can’t handle this another (day, minute, year? Choose one). Let’s go back and join your ancestors as they wandered the desert. The nearest way to Israel would have been to head west, up the coast. They would have reached what today is the Gaza Strip, gone further up to Ashdod Caesarea, Haifa, Akko and Naharia. Today the entire journey would probably take no more than one day by car. They ended up in the desert for 40 years. The generation that left Egypt as adults never saw the Israeli coast, or even stepped foot into the Promised Land. What did Hashem have in mind for them?
He wanted them to grow into the role that they would take in history, both the history of the world, and each person’s individual story. He wanted them to stretch beyond their comfort level. He didn’t want to break them. He knew they couldn’t’ face what awaited them on the coast. The Philistines would have attacked them, and they weren’t strong enough to face them in battle. Before they could enter Eretz Yisrael, they needed to see the sea split, to see water gush forth from a rock in the middle of the desert, to live with a pillar of cloud leading them during the day, and a pillar of flame lead them through the darkness of the desert’s night. They also needed the desperation that they felt before the sea parted and the thirst that they felt before the water came gushing forth. The years of slavery had to be shaken off completely before they could reinvent themselves as a people who have no fear of anyone but G-d.
What are you afraid of? Rejection? Lonlieness? Poverty? Having your body turn against you and die? There are real fears out there. If you serve G-d (as the Jews did on that first Pesach in Egypt) does that guarantee the easy outcomes? Not on the surface- they found themselves standing in front of the sea with the Egyptians hot in pursuit (I always wanted to use that cliché, but never had the chance), the sea in front of them, and the desert on either side. The sea split. Everything for one moment in history was absolutely clear. They understood the way the puzzle comes together. They knew that Hashem’s attribute of justice and His attribute of mercy are one in the source. They were being saved, changed, beloved. The Egyptians were being met out the justice that they so richly deserved. This was a step towards their becoming a people who live their beliefs in Him in everything they do. This is when they developed real faith. What does living with real faith look like? It has so many faces.
My son in law’s uncle, Rav Shabtai Frankel is one of the people who know what faith is, and and lives it. He has a publishing house dedicated to printing the basic books of Jewish scholarship in the most accurate and well-presented way possible. His magna opus is his edition of the Rambam’s (Maimonides) famous s Yad Chazakah, and encyclopedia of every topic relevant to living a Jewish life, including the mitzvos that are no longer practiced today (such as everything involved in the sacrificial offerings). In order to do this the way he wanted, he acquired every possible manuscript of the work he wanted to publish. This lead him to the Cairo Geniza, a treasure of ancient books and manuscripts that was discovered hidden away in a room set aside for sacred writings that are no longer in use. There were hundreds of ordinary siddurs, and chumashim. There were also rare books and manuscripts. There is almost nothing extant in Rambam’s original handwriting. For almost two million shekels Frankel bought a partial manuscript of the Yad. When he returned to Israel, he began to examine the fragile antique writings at his desk, in order to note the differences between the original and the contemporary versions that you have in the book cases of so many of the frum people you know. One of his assistants came in to take a look at the treasure. He was holding a cup of coffee. I think you can guess what happened next.
The manuscript was irredeemable. It’s paper was too fragile to be blotted to remove the coffee. Rav Frankel left the room immediately. The assistant stayed glued to his place, not knowing what to say or do. The Rav came back holding a cup of coffee. “You dropped your coffee. I made you another cup”. The man didn’t know what to say. Frankel looked at him and said, “The Rambam is gone anyway. It’s Hashem’s decree. Have the coffee”.
Next time you find yourself floundering, just say, “It is what He wants it to be. Have a coffee”.