You may be familiar with the phrase “the handwriting on the wall.” It comes from the Hebrew Bible. We find a parallel in this week’s Torah portion. Both are worth looking at.

The Book of Daniel (chapter 5) presents a mysterious hand writing strange words on a wall in the palace of Babylonian king Belshazzar. Neither the king nor his diviners understand the words. The Jewish exile Daniel is called in. He interprets them as a warning: The king has become haughty; God will split his kingdom between the Medes and the Persians. Belshazzar rewards Daniel handsomely. (This echoes Joseph interpreting Pharoah’s dreams, Genesis 41).

A parallel occurs in B’Shallach—In Sending (Exodus 13:17–17:16). Following the tenth plague—the death of the firstborn—Pharaoh permits the Israelites to leave Egypt. In fact, they’re driven out while Egyptians give them objects of gold and silver. 

But God again hardens Pharoah’s heart. Pharaoh’s army gives chase. The Israelites come to the Reed Sea with the Egyptians at their backs (Exodus 14). Crushed by their slave mentality, the Israelites cry out to God and complain to Moses. God tells Moses to raise his staff. The sea splits. The Israelites march through. The Egyptians follow. God brings the water down, drowning Pharaoh and his army.

The Israelites’ lack of trust in God continues. Ultimately, God makes the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years before a new generation, reared in freedom, can enter Canaan.

The splitting of the sea presents the handwriting on the water. The Israelites pass through walls of water. Yet after witnessing miracles, the Israelites keep doubting. The Torah and the rest of the Hebrew Bible detail their constant turning away from God and bringing disaster down upon their heads.

It’s hard to change or adjust one’s attitude about almost anything. We often reject the obvious—clear and compelling facts. Digging in our heels, we cling to false, even dangerous, notions. 

Course corrections can move us forward. Example: the writing process. A story or novel must go through multiple drafts, and an author must put ego in its place. I’m three-quarters through draft three of a novel about the underside of the Eastern-European Jewish immigrant experience in America: The Short (Pun Intended), Redemptive Life of Little Ned. It’s tempting to think of a first draft as a finished product. Also self-defeating. I’ve revised each scene of Little Ned up to a dozen times. 

Last week, I worked on a chapter involving a young woman—an accomplished vaudeville singer, who’d hit the skids. Originally, it consisted of two scenes. I cut unneeded information, shortened dialog that was way to “clever,” and pulled material from the first scene to create a third. The chapter is much more effective.

What if we, as individuals, gave more serious thought to the positions we take on a variety of issues? What if we asked more questions? What if we listened—then did a little self-editing? And as a nation, what if we stopped clutching at ideologies and looked more closely at the world, including different experiences and points of view? 

The handwriting on the wall—or on the water—is out there. If we open our eyes, and our hearts, we won’t need a Daniel to set us on a better path.

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  1. Tracy on February 3, 2023 at 1:50 pm

    Sadly, most would rather cast Smoke on the Water and obfuscate.

    Robb Nen would not approve, I think.

    Shabbat Shalom.

    • David Perlstein on February 3, 2023 at 2:08 pm

      I think I need a little help from Daniel on this, Tracy. Shabbat Shalom!

  2. David Newman on February 3, 2023 at 4:17 pm

    Your essay reminds me of the benefit of travel — the chance to engage with people whose culture and life experiences are different from our own. While it’s true at a superficial level, as some are inclined to believe, that all people are basically the same, that folk wisdom breaks down when you really encounter people from other places. As human beings, we all need sustenance, shelter and social relationships, but how we approach satisfying those needs is largely determined by the cultures we grow up in. Meeting other people allows us to see the breadth of ways that other peoples have solved those challenges, and hopefully injects a dose of humility and constructive doubt into the certainty that our way is the right way. The humility that Micah reminds us that God requires of us is not self-abasement, but rather the ability to know that we don’t know everything. Humility can be a source of strength if it compels us to seek out and learn from other sources of knowledge, other cultures, and other people’s life experiences.

    • David Perlstein on February 3, 2023 at 4:32 pm

      Amen, David.

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