Recently, my kids and I walked from our home to the park a few blocks away. My son Jeremy decided to roller-skate there, even though he’s still learning how. He’s at the point where he can skate on his own during the smooth stretches of sidewalk, but needs help to keep from falling over bumps. We progressed at the pace of snails. (It took us almost half an hour to reach the park only a few blocks away!)
As we moved along, repeatedly letting go and grabbing hands again, I felt that this pattern was intrinsic to human nature. When everything’s fine, we coast. We feel independent and self-sufficient; we can go it alone. However, when we reach bumps in the road, then we feel the need to hold to one another.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people hit a bumpy part of the road – to say the least. This parasha, Sh’mot (names), which begins the book of Exodus, recounts how we became enslaved in Egypt. In this excruciating time, the portion is filled with stories of people reaching out to one another. The Hebrew midwives risk their lives to save babies (who Pharaoh commanded to be killed). Pharaoh’s daughter rescues baby Moses from the river, and Moses’ sister Miriam steps in to ensure he is reunited with his mother. When he grows up, Moses intervenes three times to help a person in need – twice to help an Israelite who was being beaten, and once to assist a Midianite women harassed by shepherds. And throughout, lots of couples are having children: “But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and grew…”
As a nation, we too hit a tough stretch these past couple years. In beginning a new book of the Torah this week, we are only days away from a new secular year. Each new year offers the promise of a clean slate. Hope for a new start is often mingled with lingering uncertainty about whether the challenges of the past year will continue.
Perhaps the only good thing that can be said about bad times is that they have a way of bringing people together. I know personally that almost all of my closest friendships were forged in the worst periods of my life. Somehow, in the tough times, you find yourself unable to lie and pretend that everything is okay, and that you don’t need anyone else. In those moments, some of the strongest connections are forged.
This week’s portion recounts that “God saw the Israelites” and was moved to redeem them. What did God see? According to one commentator, “God saw that the Israelites had compassion on one another. When one of them finished his quota of bricks, he would help his friend.”
Each year, we read the story of the Exodus not merely as descriptive of past events, but as prescriptive for the future. Sometimes, the most profound truths in life are also the simplest. When you reach bumps in the road, hold hands.
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