Spring, 2016. I landed in JFK in the afternoon, rented a car, and drove to Pennsylvania. I was scheduled to speak at a banquet that night. The drive took a few hours. I followed my GPS and found myself on a road through a forest of tall trees that opened, at wondrous intervals, into meadows of wildflowers.
It was starting to get dark when I saw the first sign, “Toll ahead.” I wondered what the toll was for. There were no buildings, no bridges, and no tunnels in sight.
The road narrowed into a single lane. Traffic slowed. I inched forward. Then I saw the next sign: “Toll fifty cents, cash only, exact change.”
When I travel, I leave my purse at home and keep money in a zippered compartment in my carry-on luggage. I reached behind me and yanked my carry-on over the seat. I had credit cards, dollar bills, and a quarter and two dimes.
It was almost my turn. I figured I’d explain to whoever was manning the toll-booth that I didn’t have fifty cents. If they wouldn’t give me change, I’d just pay a dollar.
I pulled up to the toll booth. Beyond it, I saw a wooden bridge that was just long enough to fit three cars. It reminded me of the swinging bridges in the outdoor playgrounds our kids loved when they were young.
There was no-one in the toll booth. On the wall, at the height of my car window, hung a large metal bowl. I guessed that I was supposed to throw in fifty cents, and somehow— by weight?—the coins would be counted and the “we mean business” bar blocking my car would go up and let me through.
I considered my options. Find a store and ask for change? I didn’t remember passing any stores for many miles. Besides, on one side of my car was a wall of brick, and on the other side was a line of trees. I looked into my rear-view mirror. Six or seven cars were lined up behind me. There was no room to turn around, nowhere to go but forward.
I tried self-talk to avoid panicking. This is a mini hurdle. For sure, I’m not going to spend the night at this toll booth. One way or another, I’ll get to the hall in time to give my talk.
From one of the cars behind me came a long and loud beep. I felt a tightening in my chest. This is ridiculous. Here I am with my credit cards and my dollar bills and forty-five cents…
Another thought: This is going to be funny. Later. So, I may as well let it be funny now.
So I laughed, and I calmed down, and that’s when I thought of going to the other drivers to ask for change.
I opened the car door, but before I had a chance to stand up, a woman marched up to me. Her face was dark with rage. Her arms moved up and down, powered her steps towards the bowl. Without saying a word, she threw in two quarters. Immediately the bar in front of my car lifted.
“Thank you,” I called out. “Wait. I have forty-five cents…I have a dollar. I’m sorry. I’m not from here. I didn’t know…” But she was already stomping away, so I closed my car door and drove on.
I felt like I’d passed a test of sorts. I’d known it wasn’t a big deal and I hadn’t “lost it.” I’d even let it be funny.
A few miles further, still on the scenic road, something occurred to me: I missed the point. It was okay because it was only about fifty cents? What if I’d really gotten stuck? Isn’t every roadblock—big or small—about emunah?
The land of Mitzrayim, of meitzar, was all about barriers. No slave had ever escaped. Until Hashem decreed the barriers non-existent, and an entire nation walked out in broad daylight.
We didn’t leave Mitzrayim calmly. “Ki barach ha-am.” The Yidden fled. From whom? Pharaoh had, finally—at least until he changed his mind again—granted us permission to leave. He’d actually urged us out.
We ran. Not from Pharaoh. We ran from ourselves. Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explains that Mitzrayim was a land of impurity, but it was what we were used to. Even as we baked matzah in anticipation of leaving it all behind, we had to outrun our many reasons to stay. Not unlike when (okay, if…) I decide that I need a healthier food plan, I may have to avoid even looking at cake, at least at the beginning, in order to stick to my “no.”
Running from. That’s the first step. Away from whatever is blocking us from getting ahead. Then comes the work. Fifty days, one midah at a time. Towards a better way. That’s the running to.
Sometimes there’s no choice. And that’s a good thing.
A few years ago, I went to my friend, Sima’s house. Sima lives on the second floor of a duplex. She met me on the sidewalk, and said, “I want to show you something.”
When she opened her front door, I saw a huge box lying on the stairs, blocking the way.
She said, “We bought a new couch. The company policy is that they only bring it to the door, so they left it like this.”
I asked, “How are you getting in and out of your house?”
“I’ve been using the back door. Some of the kids managed to climb over it. My husband is hoping the kids will shlep it up, and the kids are hoping my husband will… I don’t know how, but we will get this inside. We have to. We can’t leave a couch on the steps.”
Not every barrier can be lifted. Some slam into our path hard and fast. And immoveable. When I was thirty-five years old, I knew I couldn’t have any more children. I remember my husband driving me home from the hospital where our baby—whom we knew would be our last baby—was dying in the NICU. We told each other that we had to be grateful for all the good we had. I remember calling a friend and asking her, “How do I mourn this baby and all the babies I’ll never have? I remember packing up the crib and carseat and stroller and soft blankets and tiny hats and outfits, giving everything away. For a long time, wherever I went I saw only what I couldn’t have. There was nothing else in the world. Only babies.
I’ve learned something important about barriers: We’ll find our way forward if we remember Who put the barrier in front of us: Not the messengers. Not the furniture company. Not the builders of bridges. Not the doctors.
Even if the barrier stays in place for the duration of our journey in this life, we’re expected to keep going. How? Reb Shmuel of Lubavitch calls it “lechatchila ariber.” It goes like this: “The world says that if you can’t crawl under an obstacle, try to leap over it. I say, leap over it in the first place!”
Leaping takes energy. We may have to take a few steps backwards first. But leaping is exhilarating. The bar may not move; the “no” may be a “hard no.” Not what we expected. Not what we wanted. But if we find a way over that, we end up much further than we’d thought possible.