Mordechai Soskil

Alive and whatnot

One of the truths of parenting, even if it’s a hard truth, is that there are certain aspects of our children’s personalities that are immutable. They can sometimes be channeled but they cannot be changed. One of the many ways I have noticed this is in the way my children report how their day was. If given the opportunity, my Shira would report her day on a scale of 1:1, where it takes 7 hours to debrief a 7 hour school day. As opposed to Meir who could come home from school with no information at all. He was so laid back and so reticent, that I used to claim that if my son would ever come home from school without pants, and you asked, “Hey Meir, where are your pants?” The most he would respond would be a shrug followed by, “Uhnknow. Fire or whatever.” This, of course never happened, but it illustrates the type of reporter he is.

I was thinking about this again recently because Meir went with a friend and the friend’s family to Vermont for a long weekend. After what seemed like a long time without communication from him we sent a WhatsApp asking for proof of life, to which he responded, “Alive and whatnot.” And for a good number of days that was basically all we knew. Alive and whatnot.

I loved the phrase, “alive and whatnot,” the second I saw it. I’ve thought about it… too much probably. I don’t think it would make a good name for a band, but maybe a good name for a Mumford and Sons album – Alive and Whatnot. Or maybe a recovering alcoholic’s book detailing their path to sobriety. Alive and Whatnot – a Memoir.

In this week’s Torah reading, we learn how the Jewish people crossed the sea on dry land, the Egyptians are destroyed in that sea, and all the miracles associated with this narrative. It’s interesting that although that story has a natural end, the Aliya doesn’t end with, “and then Miriam the prophetess led the women in song,” it ends with a story about the Jewish people traveling from the sea and not finding any potable water. The Torah reader doesn’t just stop after the salvation of the people at the sea. He keeps going to describe how after leaving the sea the Jewish people travel for 3 days and don’t find water, and when they finally do find water, it’s too bitter to drink. Certainly, the Torah also describes the miracle Hashem wrought to “heal” the water of its bitterness, but it makes me curious why that story is included in the reading of the sea and not connected to other stories of the Jew’s other struggles on that journey.

And just for a moment let’s imagine that as the Jews arrive at this place of bitter waters, one of them would get a text asking how they’re doing. If Meir were there he might have said, “Alive and whatnot,” and that would have been a fairly accurate assessment of the situation because it was an amazing time but also it was an awful moment and maybe the only thing you could muster was, “alive and whatnot.”

I think that might be the explanation for why the aliyot are divided this way. Life isn’t always crossing-the-sea-sized miracles, and it’s also not always bitter waters. Maybe the message hidden in this quirk in the Torah reading is to realize that both miraculously split waters and bitter waters are both opportunities to serve Hashem.

I was thinking about this a lot this week because it’s been a confusing time. In the small stretch of wall between my office and the high school beit midrash, there has been a bulletin board honoring the Israeli soldiers who have fallen in Gaza. Our ShinShiniyot (young Israeli women doing a year of service in the diaspora) took down everything that was there, and in an attempt to honor each soldier, they printed a picture at about 2”x3” and the pictures filled the entire board, and then some. Hundreds of young (mostly) men (mostly) of every skin tone and every flavor of Judaism, dead. Killed while trying to secure the only piece of ground we can ever really call home. Killed while trying to protect farmers and hi-tech workers, and yeshiva students and bais Yaakov girls and the famously wisdom-filled Israeli taxi drivers. Killed in a war we didn’t start but have to win, because as Golda Meir said, we have no place else to go. The board is breathtaking in the very worst way.

And while this is all true, it also true that we had a couple of snow days recently, and snow days are awesome! And our hometown football team is in the division championship. And people are getting married and having babies and starting businesses and getting raises and generally doing all the things the prophet Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) told us to do when he said to those newly exiled,

“Build houses and live in them, plant gardens and eat their fruit. You should take wives and beget sons and daughters; and you should take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters. Multiply there, do not decrease. And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to GOD in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)

Which basically means that even though you’re in exile and everything is terrible, also you should keep building your lives and doing all the day-to-day things of raising families, and that also includes good things. So here we are in this crazy moment where it’s good but also, it’s awful. How are we supposed to process this?

There is a piece of wisdom I think embedded in an extremely obscure passage of Talmud at the end of Mesechet Brachot. Let’s say a person loses their parent, they have to make a bracha, “Blessed are You Hashem . . . the True Judge.” Let’s say a person wins the lottery or gets a major gift, they have to say the blessing of Shehechiyanu, “Blessed are You Hashem . . . Who kept us alive and sustained us and helped us reach this day.” This is because the Talmud teaches us that just like you can serve Hashem with joy you should also serve Hashem when (Heaven forbid) sad times come. So, we have a bracha for good things and a bracha for sad things. But let’s say a person loses their father and simultaneously gets a major inheritance, what bracha do they say? The good times bracha or the bad times bracha? The Gemorah rules that you actually have to say both brachot. And the wisdom embedded in that is, I think, that the human heart can hold multiple truths. You can be happy and sad at the same time. It’s odd, but odd things can be true.  I think that’s also part of the wisdom hidden in the Torah reading; good times and bad times can overlap. And I think this is the complexity of the moment we’re living in.

And I think that all might be very hard to express, especially for a 20-year-old, naturally taciturn young man. I think a perfectly fine response is, “alive and whatnot.”

About the Author
Rabbi Mordechai Soskil has been teaching Torah for more than 20 years. Currently he is the Director of Judaic Studies at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School. He is also the author of a highly regarded book on faith and hashkafa titled "Questions Obnoxious Jewish Teenagers Ask." He and his wife Allison have 6 children. And a blessedly expanding herd of grandchildren.
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