Wood, Fire, and Water

Photo by author 6-14-2020

Parashat Shmot 5782, 20 Tevet/December 24, 2021

It was the smokiest backyard fire I have ever built.

We had an unseasonably warm, dry day in the middle of last week. Through sheer force of will I caught up on work, cleaned up after the dog, and hauled out the fire pit one last time before winter. We still have an enormous pile of cut firewood from the limb of our neighbors’ tree that crashed into our backyard on June 13th, sitting unused due to an excessive amount of rain, stress, and general exhaustion that has kept us from using it.

Unfortunately, the kindling, “dry leaves” that I had gathered in armfuls from the yard, wouldn’t light. Only the tops were dry; the lower surface where they had been in contact with the grass was wet and already composting in place. This didn’t become clear until they were already on the fire. I managed to salvage the endeavor by finding some newspaper indoors (not easy in 2021 – we’re reduced to burning junk mail coupons), but what resulted was a roaring fire that gave off so much smoke I was still smelling it the next day inside a facemask that hadn’t even been next to the fire.

Building that fire was part of my attempt to climb out of a well of depression, the latest in a series I have experienced since the start of the pandemic.  I wasn’t just building fires: I was playing music, finishing a collaborative piece of writing I’d been working on with Rick Light, even going out a few times to places that were vigilantly checking vaccine cards.

And then I got Omicron.

This has been the pattern: the sheer weight of responsibility, of loss, adds up until I start to spiral. I reach what feels like the bottom, and like Yosef in prison I decide I just can’t give myself over to despair. So I rally. I reach for inspiration. I write. I use my favorite Freudian defense mechanism, mastery, to gain a feeling of control over my work, gaining strength from knowing when I’ve made an astute diagnosis, said exactly what someone needs to hear, or gone the extra mile to make some difficult arrangement for a person I’m caring for. I connect with friends, live life to the reasonable limits of what is possible and safe in this time, even attend weddings. I feel alive again.

And then something happens, and I spiral again. Or in the case of this week, I just plummet.

After two years of this, it is reasonable to ask, “How much are we meant to endure?” By we, I could mean me, my family, our community (remember, I live in Pittsburgh, where we were barely a year into recovering from a terrorist attack on a synagogue when the pandemic started), the health professions, or the world as a whole. It doesn’t matter anymore; there is no one who has been untouched by the rolling series of disasters. How many more of these are we supposed to experience before it is reasonable to cry, “Stop!  We can’t take anymore!”?

The last verses of chapter two of Shemot, which we read this week, show us a glimpse of the enslaved Israelites at a similar breaking point. “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” A new Pharaoh had just taken power – not the one from Yosef’s time, who we learn at the beginning of chapter one is long gone, and not the one who decreed the policy of infanticide, but a third (at least) Pharaoh.  While good for Moshe, since the warrant for his death expired with the death of the second Pharaoh, it was terrible for the Israelites since the new ruler had further worsened the conditions under which they worked. So they cried out for help.

There are three possible answers to this cry, ones that I have rolled over in my mind for twenty-one months since the full weight of the pandemic settled on us here in Pittsburgh. First, and most sobering, is that we are meant to endure all of this and more. Life takes place in a Hobbesian state of nature, is “nasty, brutish, and short,” and all our 20th and 21st century hopes that we were on the cusp of defeating disease, war, pestilence, famine and drought were not just premature but delusional, diametrically opposed to an increasingly chaotic, entropic reality.

This view runs counter to everything I want to believe, to the view from Rabbi Yitz Greenberg I adopted long ago that Shemot, and indeed the whole saga of the Jewish people, is that God does not want humans to be enslaved, God does not want humans to suffer, God sees and hears people’s pain when they cry out, and God expects other human beings to rise to the challenge and do something about it.

The second, most hopeful, answer is, “Not much more, just a little bit longer.” And indeed, in those moments just before the spiral, this is the answer I’ve willed myself to believe throughout the pandemic – the initial lockdowns had curtailed the disease, vaccines were coming, boosters were coming, case counts were in the single digits per day. It couldn’t be much longer.

This is the answer, I think, that Shemot 2:24-25 would have us believe as well: “God heard their moaning, and God remembered God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.” The covenant, of course, was that the enslavement had a predetermined time limit, and was now coming to an end. If they could just hang on, they would see their fortunes turn. Yes, some of the suffering was Divinely ordained, but it has its limits. The Malbim’s commentary on Shemot 2:23 is that God took note of the fact that many Israelites had been slain in the course of their slave labor, falling from scaffolds or crushed under the bricks of the pyramids. Slavery had been foretold and necessary, but not this meaningless death. The Haamek Davar follows that God had been hearing the individual cries of suffering since the beginning of enslavement, but that now God also hears the people crying in a collective prayer – I believe, meaning that now, the point has been made and further enslavement is not needed.

But there is a third possibility, disturbing in a different way than the first. That possibility states that we are not meant to accept the suffering, but to fight against it – yet despite our resistance, the suffering, the torment, will not end. Which brings me back to firewood, in the form of the Burning Bush.

While I was sending smoke signals from my yard last week, I realized that the image of the bush was bothering me this year. My teachers have always used the bush as a symbol of our, meaning “the Jews’,” continued endurance in the face of hardship.  Through this recent cycle of dashed hopes, however, one driver of my frustration has been the inability to wear any other “we” or “us” except “doctors” or “health professionals.” And “we” are often assumed to be like the bush, carrying an endless reserve of fuel so that we can keep burning forever, without burning out – or burning up. The typical explanation of how the bush could have burned without being consumed, “black fire” vs. “red fire,” is so otherworldly that it only reinforces this idea that somehow we are meant to be superhuman, magical beings who don’t wound, fall ill, or get tired like normal people.

Worse still is the possibility suggested by Rabbi Ovadia Sforno: the bush represents not the Israelites, but the Egyptians, and the fire is the plagues.  S’neh, the specific word for bush in Shmot 3:2, doesn’t mean any bush at all, but a thorn bush native to the desert. Just as Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, a narrow place, or “dire straits” as I have called it in the past, a thorn bush is a place where animals in the desert get stuck and injured. The Israelites in Egypt were like an animal caught in a thorn bush, unable to escape. God sent the fire of the plagues – and the bush was not consumed! The tormentor, the suffering, the source of our agony, is going to survive this whole mess intact! “COVID is going to be with us for a long time,” say the experts now. I’d like to disregard the message – but like the Sforno, these are the people whose interpretation of the facts I usually find to be spot on.

If there is solace, and I’m not sure there is, it is in the much more naturalistic explanations of the Targum Yerushalayim and Ibn Ezra. Targum Yerushalayim renders, “was not consumed” as “remained moist.”  Moist?  Ibn Ezra explains that, as we said above, s’neh is a thorn bush native to the desert – specifically, the kind of thorn bush after which Mount Sinai (from the same root as s’neh) is named. In a totally dry environment, how on earth did the bush get there? Clearly, there must be water underneath somewhere. But it is hardly adequate; as I struggled to light my damp fire here in the Eastern US, I thought of the bitter irony of how what I was doing is illegal in most Western states, where a single errant spark can burn down entire counties.

Ibn Ezra, the linguist, has such people in mind as he brings in another verse that uses the word, D’varim 33:16, “the goodwill of the one who dwells in the bush.”  Not The Bush, says Ibn Ezra, but the one who dwells where there are a lot of s’neh – one who dwells in the desert. And what does that person, the denizen of Midian, or Colorado, or California, will? “A person living in such a place entreats and prays that God do his will and wet the land that he lives in. He prays that God change it from a dry place, a place where the seneh grows, to an amply watered place so that it becomes like a wet and well-watered garden.”

We need water. I can no longer believe that there is a definable end in sight; I’ve had too many lights at the end of too many tunnels turn out to be oncoming trains. And as much as I would like to, I can’t give in to despair. I let slip to my boss on Monday that I was “about done with this.” “What do you mean, done?” she replied. I didn’t have a ready answer – it’s not as though there is a single fiber of who I am that would let me give up even the most futile fight to try to protect someone, somewhere, from the ravages of this mess. The only choice is to be like the bush. But how? Where is the water?

I am hoping this is the first in a four-part series of posts. Check back over the next three weeks to find out if I made it – and whether I find water at the end.

About the Author
Jonathan Weinkle MD, FAAP, FACP is a primary care-physician in a community health center in Pittsburgh. He is not a rabbi, though he has often been accused of being one. He is an amateur singer-songwriter, teaches at both Chatham University and the University of Pittsburgh, and is the author of the book Healing People, Not Patients. For a complete archive of his writings, plus media, event listings, and even source sheets for further learning, visit healerswholisten.com.
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