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Keep moving forward (with some chulent to keep you warm)

Updated: May 20, 2021

This post is about Covid. It's about life. It's about Rocky Balboa. And it's about chulent.

Bear with me.

I learn the parsha of the week with a student after work every week. What always strikes me in the learning and sharing and discussing is how often a word or a verse comes alive in unanticipated and presciently relevant ways.

Beshalach - these deeply traumatized Jews, beaten down by life, afraid of their own shadows, with no muscle memory to fight or believe, with no agency, are heading out of Egypt, with Moshe and God leading the way, acting as guides and leaders. God even steers them away from the most direct route to the Land of Israel, because he was worried that His chosen people would get spooked by the Philistines who lived in the area, and run straight back to Egypt, to that narrow place of enslavement and suffering and / or fleshpots and a comfortable middle class existence (God bless the rabbinic commentaries, with their theological and midrashic elasticity).

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Pharoah pulls himself out of his defeat and his depression, God hardens his heart, and he and his army give chase to the Jews. Can't live with the Jews, can't live without them... how old is this story in history?

The Jews are now trapped between the advancing Egyptian chariots on one side, and the Yam Suf, the Sea of Reeds on the other. And they fall to pieces, "greatly frightened" (Shmot 14:10), helpless, but not before giving Moshe a piece of their mind (!) for the holy chutzpah of taking them out of a comfortable existence, only to be massacred in the desert.

And Moshe, he of the low self-esteem and never really knowing how to express himself properly, tries to inspire his flock to believe, to "witness the deliverance which the LORD will work for you today" (ibid14:13).

This great motivational speech inspires absolutely no one, and they just stand there, immobile, no fight or flight left in them. Moshe at least has an extra gear, and according to the commentaries, he begins to pray to God.

And here's where it gets interesting.

God snaps back: “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward" (ibid 14:15) Why are you praying, why are you davening to Me? No one needs prayers now. That's not your task now. Tell your family that right now, your only task is to move forward.

And then, and you can picture it, it's so vivid, there's this one little Yiddel, the midrash has him as Nachshon, the son of Aminadav. Even before Moshe repeats what God just instructed him, he heads off into the surf, moving forward, because he knows that's what he has to do, it's only way he knows to be in this dangerous moment. And we are taught that the moment he waded in until the waters reached his nostrils, the sea parted, and the Jewish people were led to safety. They move forward, through terror, away from death, to dry land on the other side.

Move forward. Those words danced off the page we were learning, its relevance everything right now. Because all we can do these Covid-filled days is move forward. Endure and move forward.

This is where Rocky Balboa comes in, in his infinite wisdom (skip to the 1:29 mark):

Keep moving forward.

We can't fix everything, there is no magic wand. Vaccines are on the way, but so are the variants of the virus. And all around, people are hurting, so many loudly, but oh so many more quietly, so quietly. Behind so many closed doors, people are quietly falling apart.

That quiet is so loud, it's screaming.

Here in the province, we have an 8:00 PM curfew, in the hopes of slowing the spread of the virus. Today, an hour before the curfew began, I got in my car and drove through empty, quiet and frigidly cold streets to get some help for me to move forward, so that I can help others move forward - family, friends and community.

I went to get some chulent.

There's this amazing guy in my old neighborhood who sells chulent out of the side of his garage, every Thursday. And so, all masked up and socially distanced, I picked up some chulent. It's great, hot chulent, but it's way more than that, it's a moment of a simple smile and chizuk between masked neighbours. It's what chassidim call varemkeit, a warmth that's not just warmth, but soul to soul warmth. And I desperately need those moments of varemkeit, in these locked down, isolated times.

And as we have no choice but to follow God's command, no choice but to move forward, no way to go back or to stay still, it's critical to look around and lift up those who are stumbling, help those who are frozen with anxiety or trapped by the blackness of depression.

We do this together, with acts of kindness, big and small, and with meaningful moments. It's the only way to move forward.

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