Because I grew up in Northern New Jersey, we used to visit the City at least once a month. (And when I say “the City” I mean Manhattan, as there is no other city to inhabitants of the Tri-State area.) We almost always drove into the City via the Lincoln Tunnel, and every time we’d enter the tunnel, my parents would tell us kids to hold our breaths since we were going underwater. (Tunnels technically are under water after all).
Now I wasn’t stupid. I knew that we didn’t actually need to hold our breaths in the tunnel. The water clearly wasn’t high enough to get into the car. In my childlike calculations (as I was too short to see for myself), I figured that the water stopped somewhere around tire-level, though admittedly, the exact height of the water was never confirmed nor denied by my parents.
And then it happened – one day during one of our outings, I was finally tall enough to see over the edge of the car door, but when I looked out the window, instead of the rushing water I was expecting, all I saw was black, dry asphalt below. I was so confused. I yelled at my parents, demanding they tell me what happened to the water. But as it turned out, they had been joking with us kids all along about holding our breaths. They explained that although tunnels are built through bodies of water, they remain dry themselves. They never meant for me to take any of it literally, but I did.
I’m sure that most people can recall a similar situation in their childhood when things turned out to be different than they seemed. By the time we reach adulthood, we usually know what to expect out of life, but then every so often a Spitzer-esque scandal erupts and we’re reminded that what we see is not always what we get.
There is definitely something jarring in discovering that reality is different from what we thought it was, but Jewish wisdom tells us that in reality, nothing is what it seems. The word for world in Hebrew is olam which is connected to the word ne’elam, which means hidden. While it’s nice to think that we have a handle on the workings of the world, although we can sometimes understand small parts of it, in truth, the bigger picture is beyond our scope. Although we could feel frustrated by our limitations, we should instead feel comforted that there’s more to life than meets the eye, as many things in this world, when taken at face value, seem unfair or illogical.
In the moment when I realized that there was no water in that tunnel, reality came crashing down on me like a wave, shaking my confidence, making me question what else I had gotten wrong. But it also humbled me and reminded me that I couldn’t have complete knowledge of anything. We must adopt the attitude that in this world we don’t know it all and can’t know it all. Because at the end of your life, if you’re expecting that everything will end up being exactly as you had previously understood it, all I can tell you is: don’t hold your breath.