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 can skate on his own on the smooth stretches of sidewalk, but needs help to keep from falling over bumps. We progressed at the pace of snails with my letting go whenever the sidewalk was even and holding his hand whenever he encountered a bump. (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, 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 parsha, 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 has commanded to be killed). Pharaoh’s daughter rescues baby Moses from the river, and his sister Miriam steps in to ensure that 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 this past year. In commencing a new book of the Torah, we also begin a new secular year. Both in listening to the coverage of the New Year and speaking with people, I sensed a collective sigh of relief that 2009 was over. How refreshing to have a clean slate — to begin not only a new year, but a new decade too! Hope for a new start was mingled with lingering uncertainty about whether the difficulties of this past year would continue.
In reflecting back, 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 my closest friendships were forged in the two worst periods of my life. Most of my closest friends to this day are from the year my parents divorced when I was 17. Another of my closest friendships began this past year as I grappled with grief after my mother’s death. (My remaining close friends are either from trips or when first moving to a new school. All of these instances were times when I was pushed out of my comfort zone.)
Somehow, in the tough times, you find yourself unable to 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 upon 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.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.