I was at the grocery store the other day. It was my regular early Friday morning run, and my cart was overfull. As I approached the checkout line, I saw that the only lanes available were self-checkout — there were no lanes with cashiers or baggers.
Now, in my experience, this wouldn’t end well. I had way more groceries than the self-checkout area was designed for. I was envisioning the breakdown in the system that would happen — too many groceries, not enough space to put them, blinking lights, beeping sounds.
Maybe to you, sort of thing doesn’t feel like a big deal. But I know myself, and for me, I was already anxious envisioning this. I don’t cope well with these situations. Bottom line: I needed help.
There’s a single attendant to help take care of problems that arise, so I asked her — with probably a little too much agitation in my voice — if they might open a regular line. “Sorry, no.” Short answer.
I got more perturbed, and my anxiety started getting the best of me, to the point where the thought actually crossed my mind to say, “Okay, well I’ll just leave my cart here and shop at another store.” But I let that thought pass. Instead I asked, “Is anyone coming in soon?” “Ten minutes,” she said. So I waited. I sat down on a bench.
Ten minutes later, a new person had taken over. Her name was Veronica. I approached her to ask about the situation. She had a completely different tone. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “The person who was supposed to be here didn’t show, so we’re short staffed.”
I started to feel frustration arising again. I looked at my cart, packed to the gills. She looked at my cart, too, and she immediately understood my situation.
And then Veronica made a choice: She went to her manager and told her, “I’m going to open up a checkout lane to help this customer, and I’ll keep an eye on the self-checkout too.” I was delighted. A bagger showed up to help.
When Veronica needed to go over to the self-serve line for a minute, I cheered her on. When I finally paid, I told her I wanted to give her a tip. As far as I’m concerned, Veronica who works at Mariano’s should be a candidate for sainthood — or at least employee of the month.
What stands out to me about this story — the reason that when I got to my car I took out my notebook and wrote down “Veronica at grocery store” so that I’d include it in this episode — is that both of us made some mindful moves that clearly changed the story.
What could have been a very frustrating waste of time for all of us turned, instead, into a moment of problem-solving and goodwill.
First, I made the mindful choice not to obey that voice of resentment inside me and just leave my cart full of groceries in a huff. I made the choice to ask a question, explore my options, and wait for the situation to change.
Second, Veronica made the mindful choice to see beyond her limits and do something out of the box. For whatever reason, that choice either hadn’t occurred to the first attendant or was one she decided not to make.
But making that choice ultimately changed everything: It made me feel good, it made Veronica feel good, and it even helped the store’s bottom line.
Now, rabbi that I am, I was actually reminded of Veronica, and our experience at Mariano’s, when reading this week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, which tells the story of the Israelites finally escaping Egypt for good. You may remember it. It’s the most dramatic moment in any film production of the story.
The people are camping by the sea when Pharaoh, who has changed his mind about letting them go yet again, shows up with an army, determined to bring them back into slavery.
The Israelites are, understandably, terrified. They cry out to Moses to save them, in perhaps the first use of a Jewishly-inflected complaint: “What, there weren’t enough graves in Egypt, you had to take us out here to die in the desert?” Moses, in turn, cries out to God.
But God says to Moses, “Don’t look at me! Speak to the people and get moving.” Traditionally, this line has been understood to mean something like, “Moses, now is not the time for prayer. It’s a time for action. Get your butt in gear.”
But I think it’s also, in its own way, another example of something we talk about regularly on this show: that leaving the narrowness of Egypt isn’t only a physical or political or military matter, but, more than anything, about our state of mind and heart.
I think God is saying to Moses, “I get that you’re scared and anxious and angry — all the things. See if you can be aware of those strong emotions and then, mindfully, set them aside for a moment and look at what other options are in front of you.
And when you do that — when you inject goodwill and trust into the world — other options may just present themselves.” In this case, the sea will split open, and you’ll march to freedom on the other side. In the words of that great prophet, Michelle Pfeiffer, there can be miracles when you believe.
My story at the grocery store with Veronica wasn’t splitting the sea. But it wasn’t exactly not splitting the sea, either. I confronted my own little version of an emotional cul-de-sac — a place you may be familiar with too, when our anger and resentment lead us into a narrow place and we can’t see a way ahead. Those moments are ones when, in our own lives, we’re standing between Pharaoh and the sea.
So this week, I’d like to invite you to notice when you might be heading toward that narrow place — or maybe you even find yourself right in it.
It could be when you’re in the grocery store checkout line, or in a conversation with a friend, a partner, a coworker. It could be anyplace, really. You’ll know it when you feel it: tension arising, a sense of narrowness and constriction closing in.
When you sense that, wherever you are, see if you can help yourself to pause for a moment. See if you can take a breath, or two, or three.
See if you can bring a little bit of relaxation to the muscles that are tensing up, a little calm to the breath that’s getting short, a little love to the anger that’s starting to boil. Breathe. And then see if there might be a pathway that you didn’t realize was there: another option, another choice, another future.
There might be. There might not. But even if there isn’t, you’re now in a place where you can be a little more mindful about how you want to be in this moment. And that’s its own form of liberation.
Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.