Sweetness in Unexpected Places

Motherhood, Yam Suf, and the importance of little things

If any of you have been wondering what happened to the Rachel Teaches Torah newsletter in the past few months, the answer is that I recently had a baby. She’s beautiful and amazing and, as is often the case with newborns, takes up a large amount of our time and energy. As I’ve transitioned back into work, I’ve been strikingly aware of how much of my time is not my own anymore. Some moments, giving to my daughter in this way feels effortless, and at others, it feels almost impossible. Either way, I know that many of my experiences are not fully my own anymore, and won’t be again for a long time, if ever.

This has become especially relevant as I prepare for Pesach this year. All of the cleaning and kashering still needs to happen, but this time, it’s in between feedings and diaper changes and rocking the baby when she cries for no reason. Even moreso, though, I’m aware of how different my seder experience will be this year. Even though my daughter is not old enough to participate, and will hopefully sleep nicely for a bulk of the night, I know that it will be different. I’ll have to feed her during maggid; at some point, my husband will leave the table to put her to sleep. I love the seder, but this year—and going forward—I don’t get to privilege my own seder experience over all else. Instead, someone else will need me, and my seder will be (at least partly) through the lens of hers.

With all of this in mind, I found myself turning back to one of my all time favorite midrashim, which comes from Shemot Rabbah. It takes place as B’nai Yisrael is crossing Yam Suf:

R. Nehurai taught: the daughters of Israel passed in the sea with their children in their hands, and they cried. So they would reach out their hands and grab an apple or a pomegranate from the middle of the sea and give it to them, as it says, “And He led them through the depths, as through a wilderness.” Just as they lacked nothing in the wilderness, in the depths of the sea they lacked nothing.

There are two layers of care in this midrash. First, God takes care of B’nai Yisrael in both big and small ways. Tomorrow night we will sing Dayeinu—it would have been enough. And surely, taking B’nai Yisrael across the sea on dry land would have been enough. But God paid attention to details large and small. Splitting the sea is huge. Surely it would have been enough. But instead, God even thought to put fruit in the sea, where one would never even think to look. God is a parent to the women, so that the women can be parents to their children.

This year, though, I’m thinking more and more about the women in this story. In the biblical and rabbinic worlds, women exist to be mothers. A crying baby, then, is exclusively the domain of the women, and motherhood is those women’s primary occupation. In this awesome moment, standing on the precipice of freedom for the first time, these women cannot only think about themselves. They can’t stop and fully absorb this moment of the sea splitting, because their babies are crying. Their job is to comfort them. But this moment, this experience, need not be diminished by finding the fruit in the sea. Instead, it is simply different. While the mothers might not remember every moment of the sea splitting, I imagine them remembering what it was like to find these magical apples and pomegranates in the sea, and watching their child’s delight when they received the fruit. In certain ways their experience might be diminished, but then in other ways, it is enhanced. It is different, but magical in its own way. The tiny pieces of fruit can loom as large as the soaring walls of water.

Of course, pomegranates in the sea do not totally negate the experience of fear. But in this moment, when B’nai Yisrael is first forming their relationship with God, they are also learning to be with and for each other. To be loved by God is to be loved as a child should be loved by their parent. To know God is to see another human being. To know God is to reach for the pomegranate to give to someone else, even when you yourself might be afraid.

Wishing you all a chag kasher v’sameach—may this be a year where we find freedom from the forces that are oppressing us, and where we see tiny miracles all around us.

P.S. Want more Pesach content? Here’s a piece I wrote a few years ago about the use of Aramaic in the Haggadah, and what it might tell us about how we should think of the needy at this time of you.