July 14, 2011
On July 16th and 17th, a ten mile stretch of the 405 freeway will be closed for 53 hours. For the past month, the sign on the freeway has been flashing this warning – as if signaling that the end of the world is coming. The newspapers and internet sites have underscored this message. City leaders have tried to emphasize that alternate routes can’t compensate for the closure of the freeway (which normally serves 500,000 cars each weekend). County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky predicted “the mother of all traffic jams” and recently posted on his blog, “53 ways to survive without the 405.” Metro Board Member Richard Katz said, “This project should be renamed the nightmare on the 405. Everyone is gonna be impacted.”
The impending closure has caused the city to descend into a panic. A major topic of debate is whether the workers will really be able to complete the destruction of the bridge over the freeway within the two days. My husband wonders whether he’ll be able to go to work on Monday. How long will we be immobilized?
The very idea of being immobilized seems un-American. It goes against the image of the Wild West that attracted the settlers to this area in the first place.
Surely, the closure is a major inconvenience and will impact residents’ lives in countless ways. For example, my father in law’s birthday is July 17th. Normally, we would gather at his home for a barbeque get-together, but not this year. Since his children and grandchildren live in Los Angeles, Monrovia, and San Diego, we won’t be able to get to his home and vice versa. (A three-day slumber party was not what he had in mind!) Instead, my father and mother-in-law plan to leave town for a romantic getaway weekend. As they say: ‘when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.’
Perhaps this closure could be viewed as a unique opportunity to take a break from our regular routines. The Torah portion from the Book of Numbers which will be read in synagogues on the week of the closure hints at this message. This Torah portion actually begins with an interruption. The portion is called Pinchas, after a priest by that name, but most of Pinchas’ story appears in the portion read the prior week. At the end of the previous portion, the Israelite men begin participating with Moabite women in an orgiastic, idolatrous cult. Therefore a plague erupts among the Israelites, and God commands Moses to slay the leaders of the rebellion. Before Moses can carry out this command, Pinchas kills an Israelite man and a Moabite woman who were copulating near the sanctuary, and the plague ceased.
In the following Torah portion, God then bestows on Pinchas a covenant of peace. One question (among many) on this story is: why is there an interruption in the reading of the story? Why did the rabbis divide the biblical portions in such a way that Pinchas’ actions are in one portion, and his reward only in the next? One answer is that this interruption demonstrated rabbinic discomfort with Pinchas’ vigilante style of leadership. As Rabbi Moses of Coucy explained, by delaying the reward until the next portion, the rabbis sent a message that we should not rush to reward extremism.
Yet perhaps, the interruption also hints at a larger message. Pinchas only received his gift after a break in the text. Likewise, to experience life’s rewards, we need to take pauses. Only when we stop driving around can we stop and smell the roses.
Indeed, observant Jews observe a 25 hour freeway closure every week – called Shabbat (the Sabbath) – which entails not driving around town and instead walking to synagogue, each other’s homes, and parks. On Jewish holidays, this closure can last for two days, and if a holiday either immediately precedes or follows Shabbat, then the closure can last for three days.
This cessation from work and travel is intended to cause a shift in focus. In his book, The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel notes that “Technical civilization is man’s conquest of space,” However, “the danger begins when in gaining power in the realm of space, we forfeit all aspirations in the realm of time. There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to be in accord.”
Perhaps, rather than being viewed as a nightmare, the 405 closure should be viewed as an opening – a chance to enter the realm that Heschel described, to have a taste of Pinchas’ peace. For one weekend, the entire city will observe an extended Sabbath. Rather than looking for 53 things to do while the freeway is closed, perhaps we will discover 53 chances to be truly free.