Years ago I heard a story about a home’s first washing machine. About how it was delivered by a whole team, the heavy boards that protected the iron device in transit uniform and tightly assembled, dressing the machine in tanned and knotted wood. The team, practiced in their task carried the impossibly heavy crate to its desired location, and exhibited remarkable collaboration and communication as they jerked their heads this way and that, in place of their preoccupied fingers, to find the best way to rest the appliance in its corner. All but one of the team pried open the wooden slats and installed the few loose pieces while the head described to the storyteller’s mother exactly how to operate the levers and cranks that decorate the awkward electric bin, that contraption that drew together the exclusive water and electricity, just as it pulled together factory machinery and the family home.
It's the next part of this story that so deeply moves me, that wows me every time I think of it. After studying the machine, taking note of the instructions she just received, the storyteller’s mother filled the basin with a collection of lightly dirtied clothes, dropped in the soap, and whirred the motor into motion. Then she dragged a chair next to it and sat, watching the machine through its entire cycle. Metal arms doing the work her soft limbs did day in and day out for years. Every current running through the water, washing away the future years of her life to a place of uncertainty. Her role has changed. If a machine can do this work, what other contraptions, advancements and inventions will displace her in the coming years of the new century? What will her role be? How will she be needed? Will she need to remain in the home at all?
The very first electric washing machines were made available to American homes in the early part of the 20th century. One popular model, the Thor was produced just up the road in Chicago to an adventurous newly industrialized community in the United States. Up until this point, the traditional roles for men and women placed men in jobs outside of the house, and relegated women to work inside the home, where a great deal of their time was taken up by cleaning, cooking and washing clothes. Given that this took so many hours, women were bound to stay in the home to finish their work. Even today doing laundry is a chore. A dear friend of my mother always lamented the task, noting that even if she got every last shmata in the washing machine, the kids were still inevitably running around wearing clothes. At the time these machines were introduced however, this was revolutionary. Suddenly hours of work became minutes, and women found themselves with a bit of freedom and the space to elect how to use those precious few hours once filled at the wash basin.
The following years brought about other steps that allowed women to take on a life outside of the home. A role that was so deeply ingrained in our culture, that the rabbis of the Talmud even conflated the two, using the Hebrew word for home, bayit, to refer to a wife. This freedom came slowly however, and still by the 1960s women were unhappily bound to the home. In 1963 Betty Friedan, a Jewish writer from Peoria, Illinois, wrote the book the Feminine Mystique, where she exposed to the wider US community the discontent of American women still forced into domesticity. Half a century after those first washing machines cleared out hours of daily work for women and they still found themselves chained to the home. Today, more than 100 years after those first appliances, women are still fighting for their place in industry.
It takes a long time to get to a place of freedom. This past week we read the beginning of the book of Bamidbar. The Hebrew word bamidbar literally means, in the wilderness. We are right in the middle of that legendary trek from bondage to freedom. A journey that took 40 years, a lifespan in that day, and a number denoting a time span that was egregious. Noah’s ark took 40 days and 40 nights, Moses was on Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights. A rounded figure that describes the feeling of the experience of the desert journey more so than its measured hours. Google Maps has the walk from Cairo to Eilat, a city at the southern tip of the modern state of Israel, at 87 hours. Taking into account sleeping and the routine break, we’re talking a few weeks at most.
I took that trip myself a number of years ago, albeit by car. A reverse commute, back to Egypt. The trip took about a half a day, driving through dusty ravines and open stretches of rich sandstone valleys. Knowing already the length of time the trip would take I began to wonder if it would ever end. There is something to being in the desert, that place of nothingness, a landscape made up of the endless uniform sand, that gets you lost, and you lose your sense of momentum, of progress.
The Israelites, the story goes, needed something to motivate them to keep moving, and so God presented as a pillar of cloud during the day, and pillar of light at night. A gentle guide forward, a compass, a north star. When we didn’t have a clear path of where we were going, we followed the little light we had. And so we have one of the core elements of what it means to be a Jew. We journey, we often find ourselves in the wilderness and for a very long time. It would be reasonable, understandable, to give up the journey, to plant our feet saying that here is as good as anywhere, what progress is there anyway? But we keep moving, because we are a people who move by fire, and when we can’t, we move by sparks.