Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
There are those who say that today’s culture can be defined by the phrase “what have you done for me lately.” Whether we are in an election cycle, our work lives, or our personal relationships, more and more of us seem to live in the moment, focused in a transactional way on our individual needs and wants. Of course, this is not new. More than twenty years ago, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by historian Michael Meyer, who wondered what historians in the far future would call our current era. His best guess was “the age of rage.” While he was specifically referring to the then-new phenomenon known as road rage, the underlying concept was simple – and he blamed Burger King. In the 1970s Burger King ran an ad campaign which changed everything. Unlike every other place of business we might frequent, at Burger King, we could “have it your way.” This was a radical shift from our way of thinking up to that point, but as it became normalized, our expectations changed. Now we wanted exactly what we wanted our way, at fast food speed, and when we didn’t get it, we wouldn’t just be disappointed, we would become outraged. Years later, with all of the innovations that technology and especially the internet have brought us, we expect instant and highly personalized gratification as the norm, not the exception. When we don’t get exactly what we want, when we want it, we complain, and more often that we could care to admit, we escalate.
This may seem like a recent shift in our culture, but it is not new – it is cyclical. In this week’s parasha God brings the Israelites out of Egypt with wondrous and terrifying plagues, parts the sea so that we can cross on dry land, and then brings the waters crashing down on Pharaoh’s army. The people, having witnessed these great miracles, join with Moses in singing and dancing by the shores of the sea: “Mi Kamocha BaElim Adonai – Who is like You among the gods Adonai?” Surely, the exuberance of the moment must have been spectacular. Yet three days later, when they became thirsty and could not find water, they complained bitterly to Moses, so God provided sweet water to drink. A short time later, the Israelites again complained to Moses:
“Would that we had died by the Lord’s hand in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots when we ate our fill of bread, for you have brought us out to this wilderness to bring death by famine on all this assembly.” [Ex. 16:3]
Yikes! They don’t just say, “We are hungry, please help us find food.” They blame Moses for ruining the beautiful lives they enjoyed as slaves in Egypt. Sure, God responded and brought manna from heaven to feed the Israelites, but soon after they began to complain again, this time asking for meat and more variety of food. Again, they focused on how good it had been in Egypt, forgetting the pain and suffering of their oppression. In other words, despite all that they had witnessed, all that God had done for them, our forbears kept returning to the question: “what have you done for me lately?”
To be fair, they were ill equipped for the challenge. For their entire lives, as far back as memory stretched, all they had known was slavery. They did not know how to think for themselves, or how to provide for themselves. There entire world view was that of an Egyptian slave. It would take forty years of wandering through the Wilderness for a new generation, born to freedom, to come of age before we could take our place as a free people and enter the Promised Land.
We needed to mature as a people, just as we need to mature as individuals. Early on, we tend to be more self-centered, and less aware of the needs of others. Yet, as we mature and grow, we learn what Torah teaches, which is to balance our individual wants and needs with the needs of others, and of the community at large. Each person needs to go through this growth, and each generation.
“What have you done for me lately?” is the question of our immaturity. We need not stay there, nor should we. Rabbi Craig Ezring suggests that instead, we should ask, “What have I done … What have I done for you lately?” He encourages us to get specific:
“What have I done for my spouse? What have I done for my children? What have I done for my shul? What have I done for my country?”
These are the questions of maturity, of responsibility, of Torah. We are a long way from the Wilderness, and yet in some ways, we have yet to reach the land of Promise. Asking the right questions might help.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras