Sometimes, if your ears are attuned, you can hear a story when others do not seem to be tuned in to the same frequency. We have made this point before, but it bears repetition, and let’s add that if you are able to detect what others failed to notice, therein lies a message and a mission that dare not be squandered.
Most are familiar with the Midrash that Moshe was selected for his mission of leadership because of his compassion for a lamb that had left the flock because she was thirsty. When Moshe found her drinking at a brook, he was chagrined by his negligence as a shepherd. The Almighty observed Moshe’s concern for every member of his flock, and decided that this is the individual He wished to shepherd His people.
There is a lesser-known Midrash that recounts that Moshe’s selection was based on his reaction to the burning bush. “And Moshe thought, ‘I will go out of my way to see this great sight: Why will the bush not be burned?’” (Shemos 3:3). The Midrash recounts, “Rav Yochanan says, ‘Three steps Moshe side-stepped.’ Resh Lakish says, ‘Moshe did not step, he (merely) turned his neck.’ The Holy One Blessed Be He reacted, ‘You wished to see – be assured that I shall reveal to you.’”
Rav Simcha Zissel, the Alter of Kelm, points out that with this seemingly insignificant act, Moshe opened up the eye of a needle, which ultimately opened up an entire auditorium. This is a rabbinic expression (based on a verse in the fifth chapter in the Song of Songs) that means that the Almighty expects man to make the first step, however insignificant it may be – to take action according to his abilities – and the rest will assuredly come from Divine intervention.
What Moshe did seems to us to be insignificant, but God viewed it otherwise. Because Moshe went out of his way, it was discerned as an act of greatness worthy of leadership. Upon this lesson, Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller famously commented, “A woman can tell her husband, ‘Look! There is a bush burning, but it is not consumed,” and his reaction will most likely be something to the tune of, “OK, honey, you call the fire department. I’m late for work…”
So why then are we not attentive enough to all of the signs that surround us? I have not the psychological training to analyze this question, but what seems clear is that slumber is not only restricted to our beds.
The tendency to tune out meaningful signs is particularly troubling when it comes to our health. The body dispatches a homeostatic alarm signal – bells clanging, lights flashing: “Warning! Warning! Significant changes in respiration, heart rate, metabolism. Whatever you’re doing, stop doing it immediately.” The usual mental comeback is a dismissal that translates as, “I’m not going to die right now. Next.” Like astronaut Gordon Cooper, who dozed while waiting for hundreds of thousands of pounds of liquid oxygen to ignite beneath him and hurtle him into orbit, most of us are totally unmoved, both psychologically and physiologically, by potentially fatal risk.
As I have never written a health column, and likely never will, allow me to focus the take-home message on a different aspect of our lives: Listen to the stories and messages that generally pass us by. I will provide examples and stories about this in future columns, please G-d. In the meantime, let me lay the groundwork.
Like most Israelis, I listen to the news but try to refrain from indulging in the commentary. This abstinence is motivated by a sheer desire to avoid a hemorrhage of time. Two examples. During the Gulf War the initial days of combat were fought only in the air. The great question was when the ground war would begin. (My witty response: “It’s up in the air…”) One commentator posited that it would be weeks before the ground war will commence. Within four minutes of that sagacious remark, an Alliance tank brigade invaded Iraq. The anchor noted the new development, then continued to unspool his narrative without blinking an eye. Not a retraction, an apology, an “I stand corrected” – nothing. And he continued to rattle off informed-sounding nonsense.
More contemporaneously, in the 48 hours following Israel’s recent elections, there was doubt if the New Right Party would pass the minimal threshold to be represented in the Knesset. The official response from the Central Elections Committee was to be announced at 12:00 (this was later delayed). To my shock (how naïve can I be?), less than two hours before that appointed time, the commentators were busy arguing the issue. They were still totally in the dark, soon to be enlightened. No matter.
Our job in this world is to discern the light amidst all the fog. And when we spot it, to take action. Rebbitzen Heller refers to this experience as a “celestial phone call.” But if we do not pick up the receiver, the calls stop coming.