When the intifada began in September 2000, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel, received a call at 3:30 a.m. The lady on the other end, with a deep European accent, asked, "Rabbi Riskin, do you know who this is?"
He admitted that at 3:30 a.m. he wasn't very good at identifying voices. She responded that it was unimportant that he knew who she was, but that she held him responsible, and since she wasn't able to sleep, he wasn't going to be able to sleep either.
Riskin asked what he had done to earn her vote of confidence. She responded that it was due to him that her daughter and family had made aliyah (immigration to Israel) and lived in Efrat.
"I need your help," the lady said.
She requested that he must convince her family to return to New York. The rabbi said that he couldn't do that.
"OK, in that case, send back my daughter and grandchildren. You can keep my son-in-law," she answered.
The following Shabbat, Riskin told the story in his sermon and asked his shul, filled with emigrants from the United States, if anyone could identify whose mother-in-law this lady was. Immediately 40 hands were raised.
This story teaches us a lesson far beyond our attitude towards mothers-in-law. Rather it resonates with the human tendency to get confused, see only half the picture, miss essential issues and be distracted by secondary ones. The mother-in-law above only saw her own needs, while not realizing the importance of living in Israel to her daughter's family. The Midrash informs us that even at the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea) confusion caused concern. The Torah recounts in this week's portion that the Jewish people sang with Moses: "This is my God, and I will beautify Him; the God of my father, and I will exalt Him" (Exodus 15:2).
The Midrash in the Mechilta, in commenting on this verse, notes, "Even a mere maidservant saw at the sea that which Ezekiel the prophet did not see."
Why did the sages disparage the prophet Ezekiel, suggesting that even a maidservant had greater prophetic vision? The great 19th century rabbinic scholar, Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson, resolved this perplexing Midrash by noting that, elsewhere, the rabbis compared Isaiah to a city-dweller and Ezekiel to a villager. If a city-dweller has an appointment in the heart of his city, he goes to his appointment at the set time and doesn't bother looking at his surroundings. When a villager, however, has an appointment in the city, he comes an hour earlier, looks at all the large buildings in amazement, notes the different monuments and the city's landscape. Nothing goes unnoticed. His entire journey, which should have led him directly to his appointment, is taken up with distractions.
So, too, argues Nathanson, is the prophetic descriptions of Ezekiel. Ezekiel describes the heavenly chariot, with electricity and wheels going here and there. Isaiah saw the same things as Ezekiel but said simply, "I saw the Lord sitting on a high and exalted throne" (Isaiah 6:1).
Isaiah, accustomed to meeting God, wasted no time describing it. He goes straight to the appointment with God without distraction. Ezekiel, however, relates tangential material before he arrives.
Now we can understand the Midrash. The maidservant who stood at the shores of the sea had every right to be distracted. She had never seen a prophetic vision before; and what a prophetic moment that was. There was noise, thunder, water splitting and walls of water being formed. And yet she only said, "This is my God, and I will glorify Him." She appreciated the essential aspect of the moment, and she did it without any distractions.
What a lesson for us. As in prophecy, so it is in life. Our lives are filled with distractions. Sights, noise, emotions -- all can divert us. There are fundamental and optional items in life. The challenge is to have the ability to differentiate between the two.