I’m going to be honest with you. Something just doesn’t feel right to me to me about being 35,000 feet in the air, and hurled across the globe in a metal tube. Yes, I am terrified of flying. And yes, I’ve read all the articles and statistics, and I know I’m more likely to die from a meteor crashing into me than on a plane, or more likely to become President of the United States (although I’m doubtful of those calculations). And yet, I just can’t shake the feeling of skepticism about this flying thing being a good idea.
My typical plane ride goes something like this: I get aboard, I fasten my seat belt, I turn my phone off, and as the engine revs up, I’m actually still okay. My muscles are relaxed and I have a brief feeling of “It’s all good. Whatever happens, happens.” I say Tefilat haDerech, close my eyes, and then...when the inevitable bumps begin as we are reaching cruising altitude, my jaw starts to stiffen as if the tension between my teeth is the *only* thing keeping the plane afloat. As the bumps subside and we arrive at the Almighty cruising altitude, I even have one of those majestic feeling moments, a moment of “wow, look at our planet. It’s gorgeous.” And, even though I’ve heard it a million times, when the seat belt sign goes on or off, the little ding makes my muscles stiffen again. Maybe if there’s an emergency they would let us know by a tiny ding sound...I don’t know!? It’s essentially the same rhythm until we land, moments of awe and relaxation sandwiched between moments of panic, and when we reach the ground I can breathe again.
There was one plane ride several years ago, though, that was a little different. I was on my way to Florida, and we just happened to be flying in a thunderstorm. As we were landing I don’t think I was the only one who was scared. Even the not normally afraid were gasping as the plane was shaking and bouncing up and down in the stormy night, lightning flashing from outside the window. All of my muscles tensed up, and noticed that I was hardly breathing. I really thought this might be “it.” I peered through my panicked stated to look at the person next to me, a middle aged lady who was ready for Florida. Her big blonde hair freshly done, bedecked in jewelry, reading a magazine. She didn’t seem scared. “Excuse me,” I said, “I know this is weird. But I am really scared. Can I hold your hand?” My fear must have overtaken the part of my brain that is self-conscious, and in that moment I truly felt that if I were to die, I’d rather die connected to another human being. Or at least die trying.
In this week’s Parsha, Bo, the Israelites are in a similarly terrifying and liminal space. The last three of ten plagues are befalling Egypt, and, after the final plague, Pharaoh tells them to, bluntly, get the hell out. In their leaving, G!d gives them the first ever Mizvot--make a calendar, make an offering, put the blood on your doorposts, celebrate passover for generations to come, consecrate the firstborn, wear tefillin on your body to remind you of G!d.
Mizvah is often translated as a “good deed” or something we’re “obligated to do or perform.” But, the word mitzvah is closely related to the Aramaic word tzavta, which means to attach or join--to create a connection. Mizvot are intended to create attachments and connections to G!d, to ourselves, and to our community. As the Israelites leave 400 years of slavery, they are coming into a completely new identity, a new life, an unknown that we can hardly envision. Perhaps they felt that they were dying, and in fact, a part of their identity was.
In this state of deep fear of the unknown, a time of really feeling like this could be “it,” G!d gives them exactly what they need--connections. A way to ground themselves in time and space, actions to get them out of their heads and into their bodies.
Back on the plane, I awaited what my seatmate might think of my bizarre request. In the seconds after I asked my question, the self-conscious part of my brain started coming back to life. Oy, I thought, she’s gonna think I’m nuts. Much to my surprise, she closed her magazine, opened her hand palm up, shrugged and said “Sure!” I took her hand, with her beautiful long and colorful nails, in mine. And there we tumbled through the sky, bizarrely and yet perfectly connected one to the another. My heart settled, my jaw released, even as the landing continued to be terrifying.
May we be blessed with performing mizvot, actions and rituals that connect us in all times, and specifically in times where we fear the unknown. And, may we be blessed to see the connections that are available to us, perhaps just a seat away, and let go of whatever is in the way of us reaching out. Shabbat Shalom.