In 2001 over Rosh Hashanah, Israel was turned upside down. Prime Minister Ehud Barak had offered Yasser Arafat a chance to end the Palestinian conflict in exchange for 97 percent of Judea and Samaria plus additional land exchanges in the Arab populated area of the Galil. It was as close as they would get to having an independent Palestinian state but Arafat shocked President Clinton and turned it down. His response was the second intifada, which intelligence would later show was planned in advance and orchestrated from Ramallah.
My unit was called up overnight in an emergency draft order and we would spend the next six weeks in intense reserve duty; it was without question the most difficult reserve duty I ever had, mostly because the fighting was so near home. We were protecting and patrolling an area on the edge of Beit Lechem south of Jerusalem, just ten minutes from my home in Efrat. We had not expected to see such intense action but the most difficult part was that we would get into a gun battle in the afternoon, and then have time to stop at home for a few hours and see the family at night before going back out on patrol. It was a surreal kind of warfare, and the worst part was, being the company commander, my family always knew I was in the thick of it.
One night I managed to get home for a few hours to tuck the kids into bed. When I got up to leave, our 7-year-old son kept his hands firmly clasped around my neck. Explaining that I had to go, I tried to extricate myself when he stopped me in my tracks with five words: “Aba, tavtiach li shelo’ tamut” (“Dad, promise me you won’t die”).
How do you answer such a question? Only much later did we discover what had precipitated that question: he had found a bullet hole in my flak vest and realized there are no guarantees in life.
To this day I have no idea if that bullet hole was actually from one of the incidents I was involved in that month, or if it was just an old flak vest, but I am grateful all the same that Hashem saw fit to allow me to live through some difficult times. Which of course presumes that Hashem sees every one of us and decides, in every moment, whether we are worthy of being here and whether what we do matters enough. Does an omnipotent being really care about what we do and who we are? Do we matter, and does what we do really matter?
This week’s parsha of Beshalach contains a fascinating detail which may bear on this issue. The Torah tells us that after the splitting of the sea, the Jewish people finally believed — “Va’ya’aminu ba’Hashem U’be’Moshe Avdo” (“And they believed in G-d and in Moshe His servant”) (Shemot 14:31)
It’s hard to think of a more obvious and revelatory miracle than the splitting of the sea as the Jewish people left Egypt. And yet … really?! Ten plagues didn’t do it? Seeing all the Egyptians drinking blood while the Jews were taking showers in clear water didn’t do it? Seeing the entire Egyptian people in darkness while they were all in the light didn’t do it? Seeing every first-born Egyptian die while the Jews remained unharmed didn’t do it? And seeing the entire Jewish people walk out of Egypt didn’t do it?
Now the sea splits and they get it? What was it about the splitting of the sea that made the Jewish people realize Hashem runs the world? Why didn’t the other miracles enforce that realization?
Jewish tradition notes that the Torah uses three distinct expressions to describe how the Egyptians drowned in the sea: They drowned like straw (“ka’kash”) (ibid. 15:7); they sank like stones (“ka’even”) (ibid. 15:16), and they sank like lead stones (“ke’oferet”) (ibid. 15; 10). Which was it?
The Midrash explains that some floated like straw, and it took a long time for the water to soak through until they finally drowned, while others sank like stones or lead which meant they died quickly and painlessly.
These different measures of the way in which they died was a direct effect of how cruel or compassionate they were in their treatment of the Jews. And the Chofetz Chaim suggests that when the Jews saw that those who were crueler died a more difficult, slower and painful death while those more merciful were spared some of this suffering, they suddenly understood that what every person does really matters.
In the plagues, all the Egyptians suffered together and none of the Jews did. On the one hand this suggested that indeed Hashem runs the world, and that only He decides which direction the world will take. But it also implied there was no real difference between what happens to a more compassionate as opposed to a crueler Egyptian (and for that matter between what happens to different Jews regardless of their actions and beliefs). Which the Jews may well have interpreted to mean that we don’t really matter as individuals, and what each of us actually does and believes is not very important.
At the splitting of the sea the Jewish people suddenly understood that each of us, along with everything we do, matters. And more than anything else, this is the essence of the Jewish people’s relationship with G-d. When Hashem takes the Jewish people out of Egypt, he introduces the concept of a G-d that cares. That too, is the secret to every healthy relationship: that we matter. That’s why we hang our children’s artwork on the fridge, even when we can’t tell which way is upside down.
The Jewish people were enslaved for 200 years, and the essence of slavery is that you do not mater as a person; all that matters is how much you can produce. When Hashem takes us out of Egypt we discover again that we matter, and that what we do and who we are makes a difference.
As we read of the Jewish people leaving Egypt at long last, it’s a good opportunity to send a message to those we love and to the world that everyone matters every moment of every day.
Shabbat Shalom from Jerusalem.