“The task of providing a person’s food is as difficult as the splitting of the Red Sea.”
Back-breaking, tedious, life-long hard work has defined all the generations from the time when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. We are reminded today that we can trace a lifetime of hard work to Adam who was told after he left paradise that “if he toils he will be able to eat bread.” God may have liberated us from slavery in Egypt, but we were freed into lives full of struggle.
When I first read the Biblical stories in Hebrew School, they were very vivid and lived in my imagination outside of time as I understood it. There is a tendency to forget the span of years between each great generation. We are told in today’s Daf Yomi reading that there were ten generations from Adam to Noah, another ten from Noah to Abraham, and six generations from Abraham to Moses. Each generation in the Bible survived through hard work and the spiritual sustenance offered from God.
We are told that despite the fact that these early generations did not learn Torah or perform mitzvot, they were the recipients of God’s mercy, “even though they were undeserving.” Most of us are undeserving on one level or another because few of us live perfect lives, but we are accepted for who we are by our God and hopefully each other, despite our imperfections and failings.
It is not all loving kindness when the Talmud discusses God’s acceptance of us. We are told that he doles out punishment, according to what one can handle, but also “in accordance with the goodness of each individual.” He will take away a poor person’s sheep and a wealthy person’s ox and a widow’s chicken as a form of punishment. But it is never “more than they can handle.”
There is acknowledgement in today’s reading that we live difficult lives. We are told that “the task of providing a person’s food is twice as difficult as the suffering endured by a woman in childbirth.” I did not read this passage as diminishing the pain of giving birth, but rather as the notes in the Koren Talmud suggest, that the difficulty of supporting oneself and one’s family lasts a lifetime, while birth is over within a defined period of time. It is a pain that can last “all the days of your life.”
Rabbi Yohanan said that the “task of providing a person’s food is more difficult than the redemption.” Rav Sheizvi compares the hardship of providing for one’s food with the splitting of the Red Sea. The splitting of the Red Sea was a major miracle that we are told later in today’s reading the skeptical among our ancestors did not believe really happened and required the evidence of the re-emergence of the corpses of dead Egyptians on the sea bank.
Working over the course of a lifetime and showing up, is a lifetime of small miracles that occur each and every day. There is heroism embedded in all the jobs we do, from the front-line workers who kept our grocery shelves stocked during the darkest days of the pandemic, to the healthcare workers who put their lives at risk every day, to the back-office workers who keep our systems working, to the teachers who show up for our children, to everyone who struggles each day to live their life and put food on the table.
But do you ever wonder what it all means? At the end of a life, does the hard work amount to something? I sometimes question what else there could be to a life than getting up each day and working against the clock and going to sleep and doing it all over again. Are the small moments of relief really all there is and is that enough?
In the words of the late great Peggy Lee, “If that is all there is my friends, let’s keep dancing.”
Here is a link to Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is”: