Shemot:15:22-27, 16:1-36, 17:1-7
Eli Ashkeloni would have been lying if he said he was happy to see Mrs. Schwartz’s Buick LeSabre pull into his service station that afternoon. Mrs. Schwartz had been a thorn in his side for months, coming in at least once a week and always complaining bitterly.
Their relationship had begun more than a year earlier when Mrs. Ida Schwartz had shown up at Teaneck/Tel Aviv Auto Repair on Queen Anne Road. At that time, her 1986 Buick LeSabre—some would call it cream colored, but Eli thought of it more as lemon—was bucking backward and forward like a rodeo bronco, and Mrs. Schwartz was distraught. She claimed three mechanics had failed to fix the problem. Eli immediately recognized that it was a slipping transmission and repaired it with a minimum of fuss. Mrs. Schwartz had given him a warm smile and patted him on the head like a proud grandmother. Then she slipped back onto her green velour front seat and was gone.
She returned days later. It’s hard to recall what her complaint was the second time. Was it the noise in the air conditioning (a torn fan belt)? The clickety clack the old sedan made on the highway (uneven tire wear)? The window that wouldn’t close properly (a broken door seal)? They tended to run together in his mind. But every time Mrs. Schwartz came in she seemed annoyed, like Eli should have anticipated the problem in her 20-year-old jalopy long before it happened. The car was no longer an automobile; it was a vehicular dinosaur, held together by rubber bands, used gum and chicken wire.
Mrs. Schwartz parked her car in her traditional spot, in front of the No Parking/ Loading Zone sign. She came into the garage, ignoring the Do Not Enter Work Area placards, and found Eli underneath a Toyota with a bum alternator.
“You know that cricket noise I told you about last week?”
“Yes, Mrs. Schwartz.”
“It’s still there. If anything, it’s even louder.”
“Teaneck is full of crickets, Mrs. Schwartz. It’s the suburbs.”
“But when I took it out for a drive there was no noise. I can’t fix it if the noise isn’t there.”
“Oh, it’s there all right.”
“OK, I’ll take another listen. Maybe it’s a worn brake pad.”
“You do that,” Mrs. Schwartz said with a huff. “How long until I can come back for her?”
“Should be a few hours.”
“It’s the best I can do. It’s very busy today.”
“Of course it is.”
“Mrs. Schwartz, you remind me of the Jewish people in the desert.”
“I said, you remind me of the Jewish people in the desert after they left Egypt.”
“I heard you the first time. I’m not deaf. I just have no idea what in tarnation you’re talking about.”
“Well, every time I finish fixing your car, you tell me what a great job I did, but then the next time you come in you’re peeved like I did something wrong. You’re just like klal Yisrael after kriyat Yam Suf, the splitting of the Red Sea. They just witnessed an amazing miracle, one of the greatest spectacles of all time, but then they had only bitter water to drink, and instead of having faith in Hashem, that He would fix it, they complained. So God sweetened the water. The next thing you know, they complained that there was no food. They even have the nerve to say how much they miss Egypt. So Hashem gave them the manna. Then Israel traveled again, and wouldn’t you know it? Again there was a water shortage. So again they whined. Wouldn’t you think that at some point they would have figured out that God, Who caused the Ten Plagues and split the sea, is going to provide for their basic needs?
“You’re just like the ancient Israelis, Mrs. Schwartz. Every time you bring in your car—“
“That’s the car’s name.”
“OK, every time you bring in Bessie, I fix her up, good as new. And you seem happy. But then when you come back you’re always busting my chops.”
Mrs. Schwartz smiled and sat down on a pile of retread tires. “Eli, bubele, you missed the point of the story. God always knew the Jews were an am k’shei oref, a stiff-necked people. But He loved them anyway. And he put up with all their narishkeit. When you’re a parent with children, you don’t always expect them to behave well. But you still care about them. I guess you need to be a mother to know that. God provided for Israel’s needs despite their complaining. And in return, they accepted His commandments and worshipped Him.”
“So does that mean you care about me, Ida?”
“It’s Mrs. Schwartz to you, Eli. Don’t get carried away.” She smiled and pinched his cheek. “And in the analogy I just gave, you’re God and I’m the Jewish people. So I guess you should tolerate me. Now, fix the car. I’m going to go across the street and have a cup of coffee and a bialy.”
“Yes, Mrs. Schwartz.”
“And Eli, be quick about it.”
And on that note, Mrs. Schwartz crossed the street and entered the local bagel shop.
Eli turned back to Mrs. Schwartz’s car, Bessie, in amazement. He looked over at his friend Dudu, who was hard at work under the hood of a Chevrolet with valve issues.
“Did you hear that, Dudu? Mrs. Schwartz thinks I’m God.”
“Eli, I don’t know what you’ve been drinking, but that’s not exactly how I would interpret what she said.”
Eli shrugged and opened the door to the Buick. Perhaps he was overstating what Ida Schwartz had said, but that was his story, and he was sticking with it.
By Larry Stiefel
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.