I can already hear the kvetching, “Who does he think he is trying to give a Dvar Torah when there’s so much talent in this community, or in his own household for that matter?”
There is a lot of good material in today’s Parasha –
The dramatic narrative of the parting of the Sea of Reeds; the crossing on dry land; the destruction of Pharoh’s army; and Shirat Ha-yam, the Song to God on the far shore of the Sea, one of only two Torah portions set down in verse. Not to mention that today is Tu B’shvat.
But, last year, Dan Kaplan, in assigning the Drash for the Chavura Or Zarua, asked me to consider the theme ‘why so much kvetching? So, kvetching it was then and kvetching it is today. So stop your kvetching.
I don’t know if he suggested this to me because I spend so much time listening to parents kvetch about their kids and children kvetch about their parents, or just because I am a kvetch. I’m sure that you could care less.
To kvetch, according to the dictionary, is to complain persistently and whiningly. The term used in the Parasha is translated as to grumble, which means to mutter in discontent. But the Israelites were not muttering; they were kvetching!
This Parasha does not include the first instance of our people kvetching in the Torah or the last. But there is a lot of kvetching going on in Beshalach! By my pedestrian count, the people of Israel spewed forth with persistent whining complaints no less than four times.
And you know what? Each time, they got what they wanted.
Put another way, kvetching preceded four critical events, four moments of divine intervention, four miracles.
Caught between the advancing Egyptian army and raging waters of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites cried out to Moses,
Isn’t it peculiar how quintessentially Jewish these complaints sound? For better or worse, mainly worse, the phrases: look what you’ve done to me? Wasn’t it bad enough before? Better I should have been left behind to die! form the bedrock of archetypal Jewish humor. And while Seinfeld and company may indeed be channeling our migratory ancestors, there is more scholarly and divergent commentary addressing the question, “why so much kvetching?”
But your darshan is not a biblical scholar; he is a child psychiatrist.
When a parent comes to me for help with a whiney child, I ask a few questions: when does it happen? How do you handle it?
Back to the Parasha: What’s going on when the people of Israel were kvetching? How do God and Moses respond to their grumblings? What can we learn from these narrative moments about the bigger picture?
It is clear from the narrative and from what we know of this omnipotent, omniscient God that each of these situations was a set-up. God was at the height of her hands-on approach to that job; she was in control, manipulating reality, pushing our buttons, allowing for the emergence of fear, frustration, doubt, and anger, presumably to make some point.
I think that it would be fair to say that God created the context of the kvetching and anticipated the people’s complaints. Hold that thought.
Hannah Dresner sometimes describes the journey from the Sea of Reeds to Mount Sinai as gestation – conception upon leaving Egypt and birth at revelation.
I want to propose another metaphor for this journey: Infancy – from birth at the Sea of Reeds to weaning upon entry into Eretz Yisrael.
After being led the long way to the shores of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites set up camp at Pi haCherut. In her biblical blog, Rabbi Daria Jacobs-Velde translates Pi haCherut as the mouth of freedom.
The Israelites were trapped between the sea and the charging army of Pharaoh, they were lost. There was nowhere to go. But then “the mouth of freedom” slowly opened as the people of Israel strode through.
The people emerge from Mitzrayim, the dark confines of slavery into the vast open light of the wilderness of Sinai, passing through Pi haCherut, the mouth of freedom. Could the slowly opening mouth of freedom be the dilating cervix?
Could the parting of the waters create a birth canal, through which the people of Israel were delivered?
Could the final task of Deliverance be a delivery: Moses cast as doula; God as midwife. Not an easy delivery, mind you.
In fact, God is forced to perform, I can’t help it, the first SEA section, sorry.
So what can we make of the kvetching prior to our delivery?
Here’s a question for all of you mothers: What do you call the phase of labor when some women experience feelings of self-doubt and feel that they cannot go on through the labor?
Having never experienced any phase of labor and now some 20 years since my OB rotation in medical school, I turned to Wikipedia for help:
Transition is the most difficult but shortest phase of the first stage of labor. During transition, the woman may feel unable to relax or to get comfortable. While she may have handled labor well up to this point, now she is most likely to feel like she has no idea what to do, and that nothing is comfortable anymore.
Metaphorically, the people were bemoaning Moses for making them pregnant with hope, for conceiving in them the idea of freedom, and at the Mouth of Freedom, they say, I don’t wanna do this. I wanna go back! Do we have to go through with this?
It’s not fear of what’s out there, the unknown wilderness, but the pain of labor and doubt about actually getting through it.
And how did Moses and God respond at this pivotal moment?
Moses tried to calm the people, “don’t be afraid…God will rescue you…but you must be silent.” Pretty lame. Clearly, not the greatest of doulas.
But God the midwife (a new name for haShem) took charge, chiding Moses for his passivity,
“Why are you crying out? Speak to the Israelites, and get them to start moving. Raise your staff and extend your hand over the sea. You will split the sea, and the Israelites will be able to cross over on dry land.”
The baby is crowning. It’s time to breath and push!
And to carry the metaphor further, what does a newborn do to clear its lungs and assure us that she survived the trauma of birth and that she can now breath on her own?
And what did Moses and the Israelites do as the Egyptians become afterbirth?
They sang praise to the Lord. The footnote in Etz Chayim tells us that this song, Shirat ha-Yam marks the first time in the Torah that the praise to God has taken the form of song, of a spontaneous vocal release, of crying out.
If the grumbling at the Mouth of Freedom is that of a soon-to-be mother in transition, how can we understand the other three kvetchisodes?
Thankfully we can lump them together: Where is the Evian? What shall we drink? Why did you bring us out of Egypt only to starve to death? Why did you bring us out of Egypt only to die of thirst?
They are all complaints about sustenance, food and water; they are cries of hunger.
Moses may have been the agent of God’s water miracles – transforming bitter water to sweet, explaining the miracle of Manna, and drawing water from a rock, but it is God who responded to the people’s bellyaching. Water is sweetened or divined immediately, and Manna is announced and rains down from heaven the very next morning.
The newborn nation called attention to its need and God followed the dictum of enlightened pediatrics: feeding on demand.
Water from Miriam’s well and manna from heaven would sustain the Israelites for the next 40 years. And some people frown on breast-feeding beyond a year! OK, we are in Berkeley – beyond 3 years.
Now what’s going on? God set the terms of an evolving relationship with the people of Israel. For the journey through the desert, God will provide food and water.
Each morning as they gather manna, the people will be nourished, feel secure in their God-given sustenance, and will also come to understand their dependence on God’s miraculous provision.
Yes. There will be other aspects to this evolving relationship – there’s a goodly chunk of Torah between the Sea of Reeds and arrival in the land of Canaan, but until they reach Eretz Yisrael, the children of Israel will not go hungry.
Let’s add to our analysis the wisdom of two of my Rebbes, John Bowlby and D.W. Winnocott. Bowlby described the reciprocal interaction between a baby and her primary caregiver, a process that involves attention, comfort, communication, and responsiveness; he called this process attachment. When all goes well, we say that the child is securely attached.
D.W. Winnocott focused on the caregiver’s role in secure attachment and coined the habitually misunderstood term, the good-enough mother.
The good-enough mother, Winnocott explains, starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant's needs, and as time proceeds she eases the intensity of focus and adapts less and less completely according to the infant's growing ability to deal with the mother’s failure.
In the beginning, the good-enough mother has to get it and respond correctly almost all of the time. The good-enough parent hears the baby’s cry, interprets it, and responds appropriately most of the time. The child learns to trust in the parent as provider of food, comfort, and attention but also learns to trust in his own ability to communicate his needs. The infant moves from a belief in his own omnipotence to an appreciation, no, an implicit faith in the parent to hear his prayer and respond.
Winnocott suggests that a hypersensitive parent, one who anticipates the child’s every need and pre-empts the child’s cries can be as detrimental to the child as a parent who is misattuned and consistently fails to meet the child’s primal needs.
The result of good-enough parenting is a securely attached child, able to make her way in the world confidently. Over time, the securely attached child internalizes a sense of the parent as dependable and caring.
Winnocott also coined the term, transitional object, which is a cherished stand-in for the good-enough parent to help bridge the gap. One might see the tablets of the ten commandments or the Torah as our transitional object, but that’s a future Parasha.
So, instead of asking, “why the kvetching”, I would like us to consider God’s intention in bringing the Israelites into situations that elicit kvetching.
Could God have made the kvetching of the people unnecessary altogether by providing food and water from the get-go?
Or after creating these kvetchagenic situations, could God have punished the Israelites for their grumblings as if they were ungrateful and spoiled by past miracles?
Why does she respond to the people’s kvetching so quickly and with such assurance?
I would like to think that God was engaged in an attachment process through which she hoped to gain the trust and allegiance of her nascent people, and by which the people could internalize a compassionate dependable God-object.
Maybe God got it right. She wanted to transform a nation of slaves into a confident capable people, securely attached, with an internalized God-object that would sustain them through the many crises in their future.
The Torah reminds us over and over that ours is not a perfect God but maybe she’s good enough.
Shabbat Shalom.©2010 Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley