Talmud Readers, by Adolf Behrman (1876-1942)
The Talmud and the Midrash are ancient writings that interpret and comment on the Hebrew Scriptures. In Jewish religious tradition they are second only to the Scriptures in authority. The following story is from Shemot Rabba, a midrash dating to the 11th and 12th centuries that is a commentary on the book of Exodus. This retelling is based on the story as it is told in Eyes Remade for Wonder, by Lawrence Kushner (pages 11-12).
The dividing of the Red Sea, according to Jewish tradition, is the greatest miracle ever performed. And yet we have one midrash that mentions two Israelites, Reuven and Shimon, who had a different experience.
Apparently the bottom of the sea, though safe to walk on, was not completely dry but a little muddy (like a beach at low tide). Reuven stepped into it and curled his lip. “What is this muck?”
Shimon scowled, “There’s mud all over the place!”
“This is just like the slime pits of Egypt!” replied Reuven.
“What’s the difference?” complained Shimon. “Mud here, mud there; it’s all the same.”
And so it went for the two of them, grumbling all the way across the bottom of the sea. They never once looked up to see the walls of water miraculously divided and held up on either side of them by the power of God. Therefore, they never understood why on the distant shore, everyone else was singing and dancing. God had provided for their escape and they were freed from the oppression of their slavery.
But for Reuven and Shimon the miracle never happened.
In his 1938 play Our Town, Thornton Wilder (1897-1975) describes how we often fail to appreciate the gift of life, and therefore also miss the miracle. The play was written about events that occured in the very early years of the 20th century in a small town called Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. The main character of the story is named Emily. The story deals with the preciousness of time and the gift of life, the meaning of which we often miss.
Emily dies, and in a conversation she has with the saints departed, she asks to go back to Grover’s Corner for one day. She chooses her twelfth birthday.
She goes back in a form invisible to those on earth. She watches what happens in the kitchen, the living room, the dining room, and outside the house. She notices that people, even the people in her immediate family, don’t seem to notice one another. They go about their busy lives preoccupied. She finally cries out, as if her mother might hear her, “Oh, Mama, Mama, just look at me, look at me for a minute, as though you really see me, just for a moment now, while we’re all together. Mama, let’s be happy. Let’s look at one another and really see each other.” But their life goes on, preoccupied and fleeting.
Emily turns to the stage manager, the character off to the side, who plays a very important role, and she says, “Life goes so fast. We don’t even have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize this while I was living. We never noticed.”
At the end, almost broken-hearted, she asks to be taken back to heaven.
As she’s just about to leave, she looks back, over her shoulder, and she says, “Goodbye world, good-bye Grover’s Corner, good-bye Mama and Papa, good-bye good taste of coffee, good-bye new ironed dresses and clocks ticking and hot baths, good-bye sleeping and waking. Oh life, oh life, you’re too wonderful. Why don’t we realize?”
Exodus 14:29-31 — The Israelites went through the sea on dry ground, with a wall of water on their right and on their left. That day the Lord saved Israel from the hands of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians lying dead on the shore. And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.
Acts 17:25b — (God) himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.
Psalm 139:14 — I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.
O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever.
O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever…
O give thanks unto the God of heaven: for his mercy endureth for ever.