Looking up, or looking down? (Parashat Beshalach)
Looking up, or looking down?
Let me share a memory from January 2021, otherwise known as the “middle pandemic period.”
My daughter is a student at a high school in New York City. Last winter, she was attending two days a week in person, and three days remotely. In a normal world she would be commuting by bus or subway, but in the winter of 2021 we were not comfortable with this -- so when she would be going to school, I would drive her in and pick her up.
Whereas Fridays were normally designated for her as remote days, there were some occasional Fridays that were in-person days for her, but only for half the day. One such day took place in January 2021. On that day, it was clear that it would just not be worth it for me to drive into the city, drop her off, return to Hoboken, and then less than an hour later, drive back into the city to pick her up. It would be much better for me to stay in the city and work from remote. In a normal world, I would have parked the car, found a Starbucks or some similar place, and done my work while waiting for my daughter -- but this story takes place when there was no indoor dining in New York City, so it was better for me to work from the car.
However: for the last many years, my Friday morning routine has included visiting all the kids in the various preschool classes and singing songs with them. Or at least that’s what I would do in non-pandemic times. When the weather permitted, I would sing with the kids outside, but in January of 2021 it was too cold to do this outdoors, and at that time, state regulations prohibited visitors inside preschool classes under any circumstances. This is why, last winter, I would spend a chunk of my Friday mornings sitting in my office playing guitar and singing over Zoom, and a big TV monitor would get brought into the classes so they could see me. Some of the kids started calling it “Rabbi TV.” I would sing songs with them and do some prayers with them.
But what was I going to do on this Friday in January? Well, I decided, I can bring my guitar in the car with me when I drive my daughter to school, and I guess I can Zoom these music sessions from the car, using my phone.
So that’s what I attempted that day. I am parked illegally in Manhattan, sitting in the driver’s seat of the car, using the Zoom Phone app, with the guitar strap over my shoulders. And for some reason the Zoom is not connecting. Apparently I have the wrong Zoom link.
Frantically I try to contact anyone at the school. And perhaps you have also had this experience -- when I am agitated, my texting becomes more erratic, and I misspell more words. But fortunately, Autocorrect comes to the rescue. But when I’m trying to say that I need the new Zoom link so that I can sing songs with the preschool, Autocorrect apparently has a mind of its own, twisting around every word I am trying to type, and thinks I’m trying to go on a safari with my dentist or something else that makes no sense. (Though frankly it also doesn’t make sense that I’m trying to play guitar with preschoolers in Hoboken from the driver’s seat of an illegally parked car on Riverside Drive.) And I’m about to scream, because autocorrect is so garbling this urgent message I am trying to send to the preschool. I am so frustrated, and I begin to wish Autocorrect had never been invented.
Later, after I had the chance to calm down, I realized that this scene reminds me of something from the Torah portion of Beshalach which would be read the following day (and will be read this year on Saturday January 15).
The people of Israel have left Egypt, but they haven’t gotten far before Pharaoh has a change of heart and decides to race after them. When the people reach the Sea of Reeds, they become terrified. Moses instructs them to walk through the sea on dry land. Miraculously, that’s what they do -- they walk through the sea and that’s how they escape Egypt and escape their oppressors. The splitting of the sea is regarded as the most amazing miracle in the entire Torah. And yet -- no sooner have the people crossed through the sea, they start complaining again. Which leads the commentators to ask: how is it possible that the people could be so ungrateful, and so oblivious to this most extraordinary miracle that they just witnessed?
The midrashic collection Shmot Rabbah (24:1) records this about some of those who walked through the sea: “When the people of Israel entered the Sea of Reeds, it was full of mud, because until [the parting of the sea, the floor of the sea] was damp from the water, and it resembled mud. [While walking through the sea,] One person would complain to another: “In Egypt we had mud, and in the sea we have mud!” It’s so incredible that the Israelites people could be in the presence of such an extraordinary miracle, but rather than being so glad to be free, they were annoyed that their shoes were getting ruined by the mud.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner suggests that the best way to understand this midrashic story is that these complaining people were looking down rather than up. It’s not that they were ungrateful for the miracle; rather, they actually missed the miracle -- they didn’t see it, because they were looking down. Their memories of this occurrence will just be memories of trudging through the mud.
With my determination not to be like one of these complaining Israelites, I thought that perhaps I should think again about what had led me to be playing my guitar in a car on Riverside Drive, cursing the inventor of Autocorrect. Of course it was the pandemic that brought me to that unusual place. Without the pandemic I probably wouldn’t have been driving into the city. But remarkably, the pandemic notwithstanding, it is miraculous how we can be maximally connected to people across the river and around the world. Even five years ago we didn’t have effective technology to do some of the things that we have taken for granted during this challenging era.
About fifteen years ago, in the runup to the publication of Mahzor Lev Shalem, the Rabbinical Assembly was doing a webinar about our new book. Webinars were also new at that time, and to create the webinar, we went to a webinar studio -- during the very brief period of time when there used to be such a thing. Fifteen years ago, you couldn’t imagine creating a webinar if you weren’t doing it from a webinar studio. And fast forward fifteen years and I’m doing a live musical performance from the front seat of my car. We all realize that had the pandemic had happened five years earlier or ten years earlier, the amount of life upheaval would have been so much worse -- and it probably would have been significantly deadlier in every way than it has been.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t complain about the horrifying effect of the pandemic on our lives. But maybe it means that I didn’t really need to be complaining about Autocorrect on that day in January 2021.
Similarly, the Israelites leaving Egypt had what to complain about -- including the violence they had seen and experienced, and the years of oppression they had endured. The problem was not that they complained. The problem was that they complained about the mud.
From their example, may we learn to be judicious about what we choose to complain about. May we spare no opportunities to affirm when we are in the presence of miracles.