Who here this morning is a worrier? What is it that worries people the most? From my perspective it’s the things we have little or no control over—like illness or the economy or the happiness of our children. We worry and worry some more and get so frustrated, but we have so little control over what happens. Let me suggest 2 things that we need to stop worrying about: the past and the future.
In this morning’s Torah reading (Ex. 17:3), and again and again later in the Torah, the people of Israel cry out to Moses, “Why did you take us out of Egypt? Why did you not leave us there, where we were happy, instead of taking us out into this dreadful wilderness?” It’s an astonishing question.
There are lots of answers Moses could have given. He could have countered, “Were you really so happy in Egypt? Were you really so well off there, living as slaves, at the mercy of your taskmasters? Or is it just fear and nostalgia that are making you homesick for Egypt?” Moses could have said that, but, if you read the Torah carefully, you will see that he never does.
Why? Rabbi Jack Reimer teaches that it’s because Moses understood that wallowing in regret over what you did yesterday does no good. He understood that, whether he was right in taking them out of Egypt or whether he was wrong in taking them out of Egypt…it is done. It is a fact that they have left Egypt, and it is a fact that they can’t go home again. Moses understood that the Exodus cannot be undone, whether they want to or not. And therefore, the only thing worth focusing on is: What do we do now? Moses understood that if you focus on what you should have done yesterday that only paralyses you and keeps you from thinking about what you need to do now. Saying, “We should have” or “We could have” do us no good. It’s so obvious, but so hard to do.
Recently, someone told me that she couldn’t sleep because of a terrible mistake that she had made. I asked what she had done that upset her so much, and she said: “Rabbi, I had a job, a wonderful job and, in my foolishness, I left that job for another one because it paid more. And now, all I can think of is how much I miss my old job, and how sorry I am that I left.”
She went on and on and on, extolling the blessings of her old job, until finally I got a little tired of listening because I suspected that nostalgia was distorting her reality. The old job could not really have been as wonderful as she described it now. Very few jobs are. So I asked her just one simple question: “Can you go back to your old job now if you want to?”
And she said, “No.”
So I said, “In that case, forget about it. If you can’t go back, then you have to go forward. You have no other choice. And if you continue to bewail the mistake you made much longer, you will lose your new job too.”
That is why Moses did not respond to the complaints of the Israelites, when they said: “Why did you take us out of Egypt?” It doesn’t matter why he took them out of Egypt. The fact is that they are out and they can’t go back, and therefore, it does no good to wish that they could. Therefore, my advice to all of you today, including myself, is that we should not waste our time and energy worrying about what happened yesterday. It does no good.
The 2nd word of advice that I have for you today, for you and for myself, is that we should not waste our time and energy worrying about what may happen tomorrow, for that, too, will do us no good. I don’t mean that we should ignore the future, or that we should not accept our responsibility for it. Of course I don’t. I think we need to guard the environment as well as the deficit, because, if we don’t, future generations will have to pay for our carelessness. I think we should be careful to exercise and watch what we eat so we don’t invite future health problems.
I am not saying that we should not care about our responsibility to the future. I am saying that we should not burden ourselves with needless worries about things that we have little or no control over. Your house may be hit by a tornado tomorrow—Gd forbid. But if you have no way to prevent it, then all you can do is make sure you have a strong roof and a good insurance policy, and then go about your life.
That’s the lesson that appears in the Torah right after the story of the crossing of the Reed Sea. The people complain against Gd and against Moses, and say: “What are we going to eat in this wilderness?” Gd hears their complaint, and sends down manna. But He does so on 2 conditions: They must go out and gather the manna every day themselves. This is a world in which you have to work in order to eat, even when Gd is helping you.
The 2nd condition is that you are not allowed to go out and gather manna on Shabbos. Instead, you will receive a double portion on Friday. What happened? Some of the people didn’t listen and went out on Shabbos to gather the manna. They didn’t find anything, but they made Gd angry. And He said to Moses (Ex. 16:28): “How long will this people refuse to observe My mitzvot and My teachings?”
Why did Gd become so angry? Why, as in the above verse, does Gd feel as if gathering manna on the Shabbos is equal to breaking all of His commandments and all of His teachings? Because going out to gather manna on Shabbos showed fear of the future, which is in reality a lack of trust in Gd. These people thought: “What will happen if we don’t gather manna every day? We will run out of food. We will starve.” That’s why they tried to gather manna on Shabbos, even though Gd promised them they would have enough from what they gathered on Friday and that there would be more on Sunday.
How do we remember this every single week? We put 2 challot on the table every Friday night, in recollection of the double portion of manna that fell on the 6th day in the wilderness so that the people did not need to go out and gather on Shabbos. What are we saying when we put these 2 challot on our tables? We are saying that we trust Gd—i.e. that if we work 6 days a week, we will have what to eat on the Shabbos. It’s a declaration of faith in the future when we put 2 challot on the table.
There’s a story of an astronomer is giving a lecture on the future of the universe: He says in passing that he believes that the universe will come to an end in 6 trillion years.
Someone in the audience becomes very agitated, and he raises his hand frantically. The lecturer sees that he can’t continue his talk until he lets this man speak, so he recognizes him. The man says, “Sir, will you please repeat what you just said. Do you really believe that the world is going to end in 6 billion years?”
The lecturer corrects him. He says, “No, that is not what I said: I said that the world may end in 6 trillion years—not 6 billion.”
The man wipes his brow in relief, and, as he sits down, he says, “Whew! What a relief. For a minute I thought you said 6 billion years.”
The point of this story is that it shouldn’t really matter that much to him whether the world will end in 6 trillion years or 6 billion years. Neither way will that affect his life at all. In the time we spend worrying over whether we have 6 trillion or 6 billion more years on this earth, we could be doing something to make this a better world in which to live.
Let me conclude with 2 proverbs that I believe can make our lives calmer and better. The 1st is from the Talmud: Dai litzara bisha-ata, “It’s enough to worry about a problem when it comes.” The other is the text of a popular song which says: “The past is past, and you cannot bring it back. And the future is not yet here; All we have is the present.” Perhaps that is why they call it a present. Let us use it wisely and well and stop worrying about the past and the future. Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis