‘…And the Earth Opened its Mouth…’

As I turned towards the entry ramp to the Begin Highway on Monday, I noticed that the road that continues towards Shaare Zedek Hospital had been cordoned off. This was very inconvenient, as I was on my way to pick up my sister for our first day of volunteering for Ezer Mizion, at Shaare Zedek.

Ezer Mizion is an Israeli health support organization offering a wide range of medical and social support services for Israel’s sick, disabled and elderly. Amongst their many activities, they deliver meals and snacks within hospitals. We had volunteered to distribute coffee, drinks and cakes in the emergency room and in various departments to visitors and patients alike who are often unable to leave their beds or bedsides for a drink or a snack.

Driving on the Begin, I learned that there had been a collapse in a parking area at the hospital. I realized that this would significantly hamper our efforts to reach the hospital and park anywhere near it in order to carry out our volunteering. We even debated postponing our “debut” of volunteering until a more auspicious time.

My sister, however, felt that we should at least try to get to the hospital. She reasoned, correctly, that visitors might be stranded at the hospital for additional hours and might welcome a kind word and some refreshments. It later turned out that she was correct. So, as we were both eager to begin this particular volunteer assignment, (and as we were already wearing our brand new, official-looking Ezer Mizion lab coats!) we decided to proceed.

After a much longer than usual ride and a prolonged search for a parking space we entered the hospital. We wheeled our refreshment cart through the hospital, and offered snacks and drinks to very grateful visitors and patients who truly appreciated what we were doing.

By that point, we already knew that this potentially disastrous occurrence was a huge hole that had suddenly appeared in the parking lot directly across from the 2nd-floor entrance to the emergency room. The hole had increasingly widened and swallowed up several parked cars. My sister, who had just spent many months at the hospital with her special-needs son and knew the hospital routine very well, pointed out that the collapse would likely have resulted in human casualties had it happened at almost any other hour.

From a window within the hospital, we could see the huge gaping hole directly across from the entrance to the hospital emergency room. An area where I have parked on many occasions. The first thing I thought of was, “I can’t believe this has happened just during the week of Parshat Korach!”  Where else do we hear of a giant and swallowing hole opening up in the ground totally unexpectedly? And it was just one more in an ever-growing list of unexpected, threatening, shocking, and even tragic events in the last two years.

What are we to make of this new and rather bizarre occurrence? Are we going to let it slip into the past without allowing it to impact on our present? In that case, it would be, in the words of Dan Ariely, author of The Honest Truth about Dishonesty”, another “wasted crisis.” I would like to suggest two possible lessons we could derive.

The first concerns what we think is beyond imagination. I assume that there are those who would maintain that this week’s story of the earth’s swallowing up of Korach and his followers is hardly credible. Or, perhaps, a tale told in the wake of an earthquake. After all, the earth doesn’t just “open up and swallow” people. (Or cars) But it does, and many of us have seen the video. It doesn’t happen often.  But once it occurred at a time convenient to carry out God’s plans. So, it can happen.

There are many events of the last few decades that no one could have imagined. They are still seen today as anomalies. But they did occur. It’s told that at a military academy in the US, when they study past wars and battles of the world to understand strategy, they won’t look at the Six Day War because one can’t learn anything from such a “one-of-a-kind” confrontation.

Had anyone made a movie prior to September 11, 2001 depicting the destruction, in minutes, of both the Twin Towers by being deliberately hit by passenger planes, it would probably have been dismissed as fantasy. And who could have imagined the world-stopping, havoc-wreaking, coronavirus epidemic that we are still experiencing in parts of the world? However, we know these events to be possible because they happened.

Very few Jews living during the First Temple period gave credence to the prophets who warned of its destruction. It couldn’t happen. Not the Temple! But the Temple was destroyed. Twice. While most highly unlikely, prophesied or predicted scenarios may be the products of fevered brains, not all predictions are impossible or even highly unlikely. We’ve been wrong before, ignoring warnings and also past history.

Too many times, Jews have comforted themselves, in a particular country in which they’ve become comfortable, with the idea that “It can’t happen here.” But then, it has. There are certainly warnings that we can safely ignore (“We have been invaded by aliens”) or can do very little about (like global warming, according to Jordan Peterson). But the more possible ones, even if they seem to be remote, should at least be recognized as potential problems and threats and treated accordingly through dialogue and projected plans of action. And certainly, some heartfelt prayer is always in order.

The second lesson which could and should impact on our daily lives is a form of gratitude for “what is not.” Perhaps we’ve all thought of what was happening in the minutes or hours right before some catastrophe. People waiting a bus stop chatting about the weather just before climbing on a bus that explodes. Others on a beach about to be engulfed by a tsunami wave. Synagogue members at prayer on a Shabbat morning as a terrorist is about to enter and change all their lives forever.

And there are countless other incidents, accidents, and illnesses that are always potentially “waiting in the wings.” How rarely we consider the maladies that we and our loved ones don’t contract, despite the presence of myriads of germs and viruses all around us. Are we grateful for the numerous car and plane trips on which we’ve embarked that have proven to be uneventful? How often do we part from friends and family in the morning and then see them again shortly after? We take all those things for granted though we are all aware that they could all end quite differently. I’m sure that I have never been grateful for the many times I’ve parked in the Shaare Zedek parking lot and the earth didn’t open up and swallow my Honda!

Another level in the gratitude for “what is not” is when we learn that there is often a hidden gift in a loss or deprivation. Sometimes, it leads to a greater sense of appreciation for what we do have or to an increased appreciation when we finally receive what we’ve longed for. In the blessing made after partaking of certain foods, we thank God “…Who creates the many forms of life and their ‘lacks’”. We can be grateful for lacks and for loss because only then can we be appreciative of our still-existing blessings, more grateful for a delayed gratification, and more resilient in dealing with the ever-present vicissitudes of life.

In her stunningly beautiful book, The Blessing of a Broken Heart, Shari Mandell, mother of Koby Mandell, HY”D, writes,

“But when you touch broken hearts together, a new heart emerges, one that is more open and compassionate, able to touch others, a heart that seeks God. That is the blessing of a broken heart.”

About the Author
Chaya Passow, a graduate of Stern College, majoring in English literature, taught English at the Hebrew University High School in Jerusalem. A lecturer and teacher of Jewish studies both in formal and informal settings, she is one of the founders of Lomdot and Melamdot, a program for advanced women's Torah learning. Since 2002 she has been living her dream of residing in Jerusalem, together with her husband, Eli, and enjoying being savta to a large cohort of beautiful grandchildren. Her new book, 'Letters from Planet Corona' was published in 2020.
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