Sometimes when I write these thing I’m not sure what to write about, because there is too much going on in the portion. This is one of those weeks. We start with the Israelites leaving Egypt going the long way, so the Israelites don’t meet the Philistines and get discouraged by war. Not like they don’t see it looming: They get themselves sandwiched between Pharaoh’s whole army and the Red Sea, only to have a miracle save them. On the other side of the Red Sea, the people, and in a rare occurrence in biblical text, even the women led by Miriam, dance in joy. They sing that God is good, in their words mi chamocha, “who is like you?”, because he’s so good at turning live people and animals into waterlogged corpses. From there, the people complain about the water and food, when miracles save the day, including the incredible food substance Manna. God also introduces Shabbat observance by commanding that a double portion of manna be taken on the six day, as he doesn’t cook on Shabbos. To end the portion, we are introduced to Joshua, who repels an Amelakite attack with the help of God, Moses and two very tired arms.
There’s too much going on. Five years ago I wrote this original piece where I complained about how busy I am in grad school. I also wrote about Trying to talk about the triumphal Song at the Sea after the Tsunami in southeast Asia seemed in a little bad taste. Five years later, It’s Haiti. Five years on what I’m busy with has changed but I’m still busy, and very blessed in what I’m busy with. With Sweetie in my life there is the stuff of another person to think about, and to care about. As she is now in school, she has a lot to do too. But I wouldn’t trade busy that has to do with her for anything. I’m suffering from doing too much, and having even more that needs to be done. Sound familiar to your life? I complained about it five years ago, have complained about it constantly ever since.
In such a environment there is an interesting wrinkle to the miracle of Manna that we read this week:
23. And he said to them, This is what the Lord has said, Tomorrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake that which you will bake today, and boil what you will boil today; and that which remains over lay up for you to be kept until the morning…. 29. See, because the Lord has given you the Sabbath, therefore he gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide you every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. 30. So the people rested on the seventh day.[Exodus 16]
For years my “meditation” on Shabbat has been what is best referred to as “recreational translation”. I would spend most of Saturday morning immersed in the Hebrew texts, extracting their meaning. But at that time I was auditing classes, they were not for credit. Somewhere in trying to give the performance needed for credit in graduate-level classes, I lost the joy and holiness of it. THe recreational translation disappeared. Before that, I would make my Shabbat mornings, art mornings. I would do nothing but sit in a Starbuck’s and paint for three or four hours.
Within the last few years, I now attend Shabbat services every Saturday morning. Within the last few months, Sweetie and I both attend, and make a big deal about doing so. Prayer has taken over this time, as it has for Jews for millenia. As it is written in the siddur we pray form, the v’shamru tells us that Shabbat is about v’yinafash – God re-souled God by stopping. If an infinite God does that, how much more so a limited human like me! If we never stop, we cannot re-fresh or re-soul ourselves. I, like a lot of people, have forgotten that. Like the manna, I need to just stop working and gathering and sit still for a day. Supposedly, as the Midrash to this portion notes, the messiah would come if all of Israel would just have one good Shabbat.
As I thought about Shabbat, I’ve not always had a good relationship with Shabbat. When I was in my teens in a conservative synagogue, like many I got a little caught up in the God-victory language found in song of the sea. I remember reading in Friday nights Psalm 92, one of the psalms for Shabbat:
8. When the wicked spring like grass, and when all the evil doers flourish; It is that they shall be destroyed forever; 9. But you, O Lord, are most high for evermore. 10. For, behold, your enemies, O Lord, for, behold, your enemies shall perish; All the evil doers shall be scattered.
My experience in those days were so different. Somehow, my enemies weren’t God’s enemies. Because when I invoked these words, I still got beaten up by bullies. Sometime in High School, after getting pulverized by two students because I was wearing a cheap knock-off of the then status symbol Izod shirts, I stopped believing in God. It just seemed that God didn’t care about me. Of course many have said that about bigger nightmares than just a bully, for example the Holocaust. Where was God when I needed Him? Where was God when we needed him?
At one point in writing the earlier version of this five years ago, I was in Starbuck’s, and noted something written as part of the wallpaper of the store. “Do I need you or you need me, things have come full circle.” The covenant with God is two way, and I have come about to a different person than the one I was back in High School. That change in me makes me think about the odd food Manna. A food from a divine origin does not show up on the Sabbath. In short, we don’t get anything on the Sabbath.Instead, we get Nothing – and that’s a good thing. The Sabbath really is for our personal rest, to just stop for a day of true Nothing, even from God in one sense. The Shabbat Amidah reflects this by cutting out a lot of blessings and petitions said during the week.
But those quotes about enemies? I realized my enemy is not an external one, It’s the one I see in the mirror every morning, my own yetzer ha ra. The enemy springs up like the grass because I’m sort of attached to him. It’s that voice that tells me to just keep doing even when it is a time to stop doing. Its the voice that get me up at 4:30 in the morning to do an extra three hours of work even before I go into the office, even on Saturday when I’m not going into the office and supposed to be resting.It’s the part of me that just doesn’t stop.
The constant enemy of Israel, Amalek actually attacks right after that manna and the first commandment for Shabbat. And the text gives an interesting thought – Amalek picks off the weak, and Amalek prevails when Moses’ arms get tired. Only the efforts of others to keep his arms up wins the day. When we are tired the enemy grows stronger, and we get weaker. When we actually rest, we get stronger and prevail. I work very, very hard and wonder why things seem to be slipping away from me. The answer of course is simple, but one that will takes the Israelites a long time to find: I don’t really ever stop, even on Shabbat.
In a world of deadlines and consistent urgent request for immediate assistance it is not easy to just take a day off. For some it’s the difference between the next meal and no meal, at least in their perception if not in fact. But like the manna that doesn’t show on Shabbat, all that work is futility if we don’t stop, rest and continue refreshed. Even a meal is worthless if we drop dead from exhaustion.
I rambled a bit this week, for which I apologize, but it’s been that kind of week. So this week, and every week, may you have a great Shabbat. I’m certainly going to try for one myself. While complaining about doing too much hasn’t changed in five years where I am this Shabbat has. Five years ago I had a date with a drum, a camera and some recreational translation. This shabbat I have a day-long date with my beloved Sweetie.
Blessed be the difference. I am certainly blessed for it.