Over the past two weeks, we’ve dealt with one of the worst household chores during Canadian winter: car repair. We’ve got two old cars. No, I don’t mean gorgeous restored antique cars, stored lovingly in a garage. We’ve got two cars that sit out in the back lane parking area in all kinds of Manitoba weather. We don’t have a garage.
The “younger” car is already 16 years old. This car, inherited from a family friend long ago, was having issues. We needed a new engine or a new car. Shopping for a new car during a pandemic didn’t seem wise. My husband opted for the engine.
While the car waited for its new engine to be installed at the auto repair shop, we had cold weather, as one does during Manitoba’s winter. Nobody at the garage plugged in the block heater or kept the car warm. Three thousand dollars later, while the new engine worked fine, the battery froze. The car had a good 10 kilometres of trouble-free driving back to our house before the battery died entirely. I spent a few days fielding Canadian Automobile Association calls and driving back and forth to the repair shop, accompanied by our kids – at home for remote school – and my husband.
On Jewish topics, well, we’ve just read the Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea) Torah portion, which is in parashat Beshallach, Exodus 13:17-17:16. This is where we celebrate miracles, like crossing the Sea of Reeds, but not only that. It also details how G-d gave the people water, quail and manna, too. There were a lot of amazing gifts offered to the Israelites. There’s a message of hope here, and of life beyond the drudgery they encountered in Egypt, if they can see it.
There’s also an interesting confluence in that those who study Daf Yomi (a page of Talmud a day) are working through Pesachim right now. This is the tractate where the rabbis debate a lot of rules around Passover. As I learned from both the Torah portion of the week and Talmud, I saw a similarity that gave me pause.
The Israelites escaping from Egypt were in a time of great upheaval, including a plague that had just struck down all of the Egyptian firstborn. The rabbis in Tractate Pesachim are also in an unsettling time – the Temple in Jerusalem was long gone, and they were trying to understand how the Pesach sacrifices were done at the Temple and apply that ritual to a new vision of Jewish life.
Meanwhile, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, with more upheaval, trying to find our way through unrest and difficulties. It’s 2021, Passover is coming, and this will be yet another Zoom holiday, full of unexpected experiences.
When faced with all this, we have choices. We can, of course, complain and grumble, as the Israelites did in the desert, in Exodus 16:2-3. We sure have heard complaining during the COVID-19 pandemic, even among people lucky enough to have food, safety, warm housing and stable income.
In Exodus, Moses told the people that enough manna would be provided each day and how to gather it. The Israelites didn’t believe it, and some of the food got maggots because they didn’t follow the rules. Our Canadian public health officers have been leaders. They have told us how to stay safe and well and, sure enough, (surprise!) some of us haven’t followed the rules and have gotten into trouble.
Finally, we get to that whole “dead car in winter” routine. Could I draw a parallel here between our poor car and Pharaoh’s chariots, maybe? No. Instead, I saw the message the Israelites offered when they crossed the Sea of Reeds. “Who is like you, O Holy One, among the ones who are worshipped?” There is an expression of hope, joy and grateful acknowledgement there.
The thing is, our cars do a lot for us, getting us to work, school and the grocery store. This is essentially the plodding that is just a part of our lives, whether we complain or acknowledge it or not. We can find that drudgery everywhere, in schoolwork, in chores and in our careers. However, we can make a choice here, too.
In Tractate Pesachim, as the rabbis go through every part of Passover, they pause on page 68. In that pause, they reflect on what they are doing in studying Torah. Rabbi Elliot Goldberg, in his introduction to page 68 on the My Jewish Learning website, points it out: “Every 30 days, Rav Sheshet would review what he had learned over the previous month and he would stand and lean against the bolt of the door and say: Rejoice my soul, rejoice my soul, for you I have read scripture, for you I have studied Mishnah.”
In all good Jewish texts, there is a counterargument. Here, the Gemara responds: “But didn’t Rabbi Elazar say: If not for the Torah and its study, heaven and earth would not be sustained, as it is stated: If not for My covenant by day and by night, I would not have set up the laws of heaven and earth. (Jeremiah 33:25)
In other words, study isn’t just a slog. It benefits and nurtures us, and that causes us to rejoice. Also, Jewish tradition and Rabbi Elazar say that our study and work and, therefore, our Jewish action and rituals, uphold the world and keep it running as we know it.
We can see the car dying and its subsequent repairs as a struggle, and it is. We can also rejoice at how long the car has served us, how nice it is to have a break outside, even if it’s to drive back to the shop.
I won’t lie. It would be wonderful if, like manna, a new car appeared instead, but, since that isn’t happening right now, I need to rejoice in what does appear – a new engine, a free replacement battery and an opportunity to pause in the middle of the slog to see how lucky we are. The car died in our back lane, not on a highway. We were warm inside the house, and able to pay for repairs.
We need these ancient narratives – the Shirat Hayam story, rejoicing in freedom and full of hope, as well as the Pesachim reminder about the joys of study. They serve as a much-needed attitude adjustment. In the midst of a truly scary pandemic, in sickness and death, many of us are very lucky souls. It would benefit us to remember it. If a dead car battery or an engine replacement is the worst thing happening to us? We’re lucky indeed.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.