Glory Days and Boring Days
Think I’m going down to the well tonight, And I’m going to drink ’til I get my fill. And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it, But I probably will. Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture a little of the glory of, well, time slips away. And leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of Glory Days
— Bruce Springsteen, 1984
We all look back at a time in our lives that were our “glory days.” It might have been during high school, university, or any other chapter when we were younger and more vital. Life was exciting, we were hungrier, we had more hair, and a very long, exciting, and successful future lay ahead. Then, as the years rolled by, we lost some of our mojo, our zest for living, and we learned to accept that perhaps our best years, our glory days, had already passed us by.
There are many chapters of “glory days” for the Jewish people. The first iteration was right after the splitting of the Red Sea. Never before had there been such an exhilarating and intimate connection between human beings and the Almighty. Moshe led the nation into spontaneous song, and that song reverberates through the ages to every generation of our people.
There have been many other iterations of glory days: Our initial arrival into Eretz Israel; the building of the Temples; our defeat of Haman, the Greeks, and other persecutors; and the founding of the State of Israel. Not every generation of Jewish history, however, has its glory days. In our millennia-long Exile, there have been many more dark days than glory days. The only thing that has sustained us during those dark epochs was looking back wistfully upon our glory days with the confidence that we would, one day, somehow, regain our glory days in the Messianic Age.
Understanding the meaning of being “chosen”
Right after we finished our “Az Yashir” song at the Sea, the Torah relates (15:22) that Bnei Israel traveled into the desert. They journeyed for three days without finding any water. They finally arrived at a body of water, but could not drink the water because it was bitter (15:23). Hashem instructed Moshe to throw a piece of wood into the water. Miraculously, the water became sweet (15:25). Our Sages teach that the particular wood that Moshe threw in the water actually had a bitter taste, and it was a thus a “miracle within a miracle,” in that the bitter waters became sweetened through something bitter.
The simple import of the story is that Hashem was teaching the Jewish people, at this very incipient stage of their being the Chosen people, that one needs to place their trust in God; even when things look grim, Hashem is with you and will bring you salvation when you least expect it. But wasn’t that already the message of the splitting of the Red Sea – why is this secondary lesson necessary?
Furthermore, why all the different parts of the story: No water for three days, then finding bitter water, and then having the water sweetened miraculously by something bitter. Why not just make it rain after three days?
Rav Yaakov Lainer explained that the waterless three days of desert travel was a lesson to the Jewish people, one that needed to be imparted after the Red Sea miracle. Life has its glory days, but you also need to learn how to cope with the aftermath of those glory days, when life is fraught with suffering, challenges, and that most arduous part of life, the tedium of everyday living.
It is impossible to maintain the spiritual high of singing “Az Yashir” on a daily basis; we must rather learn how to live a life of devotion to Hashem even when life is not filled with miracles and excitement. Travel in the desert of life, face its adversities and mundanities, and retain your faith even when your soul is not soaring with that sense of exhilaration and ultimate closeness with your Creator.
Finding purpose in bitterness
This was the added lesson of finding bitter water and sweetening it with bitter wood. Everyday life can be bitter. Sometimes, you cannot sweeten daily life by finding some new thrill or source of elation.
The alleviation of bitter daily living is rather to appreciate that in that very bitter moment, when you feel estranged and uninspired, Hashem is with you and you are His beloved child. The fact that you are not experiencing some magic moment right now, but are instead feeling bored and distant from spirituality, means that Hashem wants you to live in this very mundane moment and be His beloved child, finding Him and praising Him despite the fact that there’s nothing new or exciting about today. In other words, “sweeten” the current bitterness by finding meaning and purpose in that bitterness.
Take the bitter and add it to the bitter, and you will end up with the sweetness of knowing that no matter how mundane and removed you feel from Divinity, Hashem is always there with you.
Golda Meir once said, “You’ll never find a better sparring partner than adversity.” This does not just mean the adversity of difficult physical times; it includes the adversity of feeling spiritual emptiness because our glory days are behind us, and there is nothing fueling us to regain them. Embrace that emptiness and acknowledge that even when we feel we are at a distance from Hashem, “זֶה־הַיּוֹם עָשָׂה יְקֹוָק” – “this is the day Hashem has made; let us rejoice and be happy with it” (Ps. 118:24).
A rebellious time of year
Rav Lainer used the illustration of the sun and the moon to help explain this principle. When is the moon the fullest? It is not when the moon is closer to the sun, because if that were the case, the moon would appear dark to us. Rather, we see a full moon only because the moon is further away from the sun than we are, and thus is reflecting the sun’s light back toward us. The fact is, sometimes being at a greater distance from Hashem is what allows us to create more spiritual light. If we can retain our devotion even beyond those glory days, then this is a sign of a true eved Hashem (servant of God), who consistently shows up for davening and shiurim even when feeling unfulfilled and uninspired.
Our holy sefarim teach that we are in the midst of a period of the year known as “Shovavim” (this is an acronym for the parshiyot we read over 6 weeks – Shemot, VaEra, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, Mishpatim – but also is a word in Tanakh meaning, “rebels” – see Jer. 3:14 and commentaries).
It is considered a time for returning to Hashem. What makes it different from the traditional time of teshuvah, during Elul and the High Holidays? We are asked to repent not because we are approaching a monumental day of judgment, or facing holy days of awe. Rather, when we are in the midst of the doldrums of life, we are called upon to remember Hashem, even amidst the bitter waters of living life by routine. Make life sweet by making God a part of everyday living, even when there are no life and death stakes.
Wedding anniversaries are great; but the truest signs of love with our spouses is when we express our love even when it’s not our anniversary. When we’re not dressed up, when we’re just doing household chores together, that’s when real love is evidenced.
Use those times when nothing special is happening to express your deepest love for each other. For those times when we find ourselves in the desert without water, we can take comfort knowing that our light still shines, and our God is still with us. May we always feel Hashem’s loving presence until the coming of the Redemption, bb”a.