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Dvar Torah prepared by Mike Garmise for Shabbat, 15th Sh’vat 5777, 11th February 2017
After the dark night of deaths of all the firstborns in Egypt, the Israelites walked out into the light. Except that it was too bright: too much to take in, too many dangers, and when the first clouds, in the form of Pharaoh’s charioteers, become visible in the sands of the desert, the people just wanted to go back.
You’d think they would have had enough belief in a God who was able to bring Pharaoh and the whole Egyptian nation to their knees. And they did. As long as they didn’t have to test that belief. But that’s the way it is for most of us when the going gets tough. It’s supposed to make us, the tough ones, get going. But does it really?
Today’s parsha presents the Israelites as they face their first tests in the desert. Bitter water, which is sweetened. No food – so they are given manna. But with stipulations. Take only enough for one day or it will rot. But when on Friday they find they have taken a double portion Moshe says, Oh, I forgot to tell you – Friday is a different day. You CAN take for two days and it won’t rot. Confusing, isn’t it?
This situation reminds me of a famous test that was conducted back in the 1960s and then was upgraded a few years ago. I’m talking about the MARSHMALLOW TEST by Walter Mischel. You may remember it. A 4-year-old child is put in a room and on the table is a dish with one marshmallow. The experimenter explains that the child can eat it now, or, if he can wait until the researcher returns, he will get a second marshmallow. Go onto YouTube (“marshmallow test”) and see it in action. It’s fun to see how kids try to control their desire to eat that tempting marshmallow. Back in the 60s, the headlines screamed, “Children who can wait and defer gratification will succeed more in later life!” This turned out to be far from the truth.
Fast forward to 2012-13 and a new pre-test is added to the protocol. First, the children are sitting and drawing and an adult promises them new art supplies. Then half of them are given new crayons, and the other half are told, sorry, we don’t have any more.
Now the marshmallow test is given. The kids who had received the new supplies were able to not eat their marshmallow for, on average, 12 minutes. A lifetime! The kids who had been disappointed – couldn’t or wouldn’t wait more than about 3 minutes. For them, a marshmallow in hand was worth two in a promise. Moral of the story: our present behavior of necessity reflects our past experience.
Back to the Exodus. The first sentence of our parsha tells us that God takes the Israelites’ past experience into account. He did not lead the people through the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer because, he said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war and return to Egypt!” Their past experience as slaves would make them wish to be under the patronage of someone who ccould protect them (meaning Pharaoh).
Everything we read from this point on is basically a series of lessons intended to re-educate and re-indoctrinate the Israelites.
On the banks of the Red Sea, fear of war or annihilation panics the people. They cry to Moshe. Moshe cries to God and God says, What do you want from me? Go forward! This is the first lesson in leaving the past behind and moving into the future. Don’t look back – look forward. Next comes bitter drinking-water. God is basically saying, trust me. I’ll take care of you. And he does. Same with the manna, except that here, two new learning elements are introduced into the curriculum.
The first new element is inconsistency. Things will not always be the same and you have to adapt. Friday is not like the other days. And Saturday – that is the second element. Shabbat. You have to work, but you also have to rest. Rest is an essential element of your work week. Work six, rest one. I remember reading that when planning a big project, the first blocks to pencil in are the rest periods, the coffee breaks.
We will see the Israelites’ learning process continue each week, and, of course, we also see the setbacks. The people are sometimes irrational, which may be a result of their previous servitude: they want too much, the longer they are out of Egypt the better it used to be, they don’t want to be tied down to rules even though the rewards are more than satisfactory (something like the EL AL pilots), and Moshe learns that the people need a physical leader in front of them at all times, to remind them to have confidence (golden calf).
We see this irrationality in our daily lives, too. Perhaps because of their past, people sometimes make patently wrong choices because they want what they want NOW, even though it means they won’t get the second marshmallow (and in some cases, not even the first one).
Some political decisions also seem to be made with the same lack of logic or foresight. If a leader decides he’s going to rip up international agreements or flout international law because he doesn’t like them and because he feels he can, he may find that the benefits he expects to reap do not materialize. Because what goes around – comes around. If you hit someone hard, at some time in the future you are going to be hit back, usually where it hurts.
But today we don’t have to worry about those things. It’s Tu Bish’vat, and we are celebrating nature and the bounty of the land. All the same, remember to take it easy on the dried fruits. They also hit back!