I was stuck in massive traffic driving home from work today. I’m not one of those frenetic drivers that take pride in how many minutes I can shave off my trip. I prefer to leave early and arrive early- I’ve been known to spend four hours in an airport to ward off that “rushed” feeling. So there I was at a complete stop for what felt like eternity despite numerous green lights assuring me I’d have my chance to lift my right foot from the brakes to the gas. I began to feel the slightest bit antsy. My chance, it appeared, would never come. I started looking around at the cars ahead of me in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the freeway entrance. I lightly tapped on my horn once but stopped immediately after the muscular, tattooed guy with hair that defied gravity aggressively and obscenely gesticulated at me in a wildly successful intimidation technique.
My kids were in the back of the car so I had to stay cool. I pushed my annoyance down and tried to distract myself by replying to texts and listening to the kiddies’ day. That went fairly well and pretty soon I began inching forward. That’s when I saw him. The policeman that reoriented me from feelings of frustration to concern in half a second flat. Then I saw three police cars, a tow truck, and an ambulance. Someone was directing traffic and several others in uniform were dutifully taking notes and speaking to bystanders. My stomach clenched in dread of what any one of us could experience any day – a tragic car accident. I sucked in my breath preparing myself for a grotesque image of mangled cars and injured passengers. I worried in those moments about what my kids were about to witness.
When we finally were in view of the actual accident, it was thankfully milder than I expected. I saw no one hurt and while one car’s hood was all but lopped off, the windshield was in tact. Another car had significant damage at the rear but also nothing that looked like impacted passengers. Still, the scene was a sobering one and my kindergartner and I discussed it. He told me he was feeling “cautious, careful, and anxious” having witnessed such a scene. I confessed to him that I shared his feelings.
What began as an ordinary drive turned into recognition of life’s fragility and gratitude that people were spared. That’s the power of witnessing tragedy or even near-tragedy. The Torah discusses how merely observing the trial that follows a woman suspected of infidelity obligates an onlooker to take extreme measures to strengthen boundaries and self-discipline. Reacting to disturbing events with a detached “thank God that wasn’t me” is how we squash anxious thoughts but what lies beneath is really a much more connected “that could have been me”. And that’s appropriate. It could have.