May 14, 2021
According to the Torah, we are just now, with this week’s Torah portion at the beginning of the Book of Numbers, entering Bamidbar/the wilderness (Numbers 1:1 – 4:20). According to us, it feels like 40 years of wandering aimlessly, hoping to reach the promised land with no idea how to get there, when we will arrive, and how we will survive along the way. It’s one thing to experience a sense of transition. It’s quite another, we are discovering, to live in a state of transition with no end in sight. It has been an unnerving experience and if you are feeling overwhelmed and unsettled, depressed and tired of the whole thing- know that you are not alone.
When you’re embarking on a long journey, by foot, you have to really think about what you are going to carry with you. There is so much that we imagine we need, that we can’t live without. And then, when it comes down to it, we discover that, actually, we need very little. I think that is one of the takeaways of the last fourteen months – we have learned that, much as we may be missing and yearning for our lives as we knew them, we have also come to understand that we actually can live much more simply than we might have thought before our world collapsed and we were confined within the small space of our own homes.
One of the things we desperately need is the company of other people, knowing who is with us on our journey. Thus, the Torah portion begins with a census. When times are tough, we want to know who is with us, who can we count on? Do we have friends we can count on, people who call just to ask how we are doing? Who might share a roll of paper towels or toilet paper when we truly need it? Who will tell us that we are the best and also when we can do better?
Do we have family members who love us unconditionally with all our imperfections? We have learned that we can count on medical professionals and teachers, who continue to do the heavy lifting under the most extreme circumstances. We can count on supermarket staff and delivery drivers. So many heretofore unrecognized heroes have emerged to the fore. COVID-19 reinforces the lesson of BaMidbar– everyone is counted and everyone counts.
We have learned how much we rely on each other and how much trust we need to have if our community is to stay safe for all of us. Rabbi Larry Hoffman of HUC-JIR notes that when King David took a census of the community, the text depicts it in a negative light, while here it is presented from a more neutral perspective. Hoffman writes, “It must be tied up with the uniqueness of the midbar, the peculiarity of the desert. David takes a count while preparing to do battle defending Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. In David’s case, then, counting the troops before battle reveals a failure of faith. But battles are not the norm. They are intrusions on the everyday, when you steel yourself for extraordinary efforts of courage and conviction. The midbar, however, is different. In the midbar, every day is potentially your last.
The battles of the midbar are day-by-day affairs. They never end. Every morning the sun comes up with brilliance enough to kill; every night, the sun goes down leaving you utterly exposed to wind and cold. One minute the trenches.. . . that carry water are arid wastes, and the next minute . . . floods surge through with enough force to kill anyone in the way. The midbar thus calls not so much for strength as for stamina, the stamina we need day by day, our troubles never go away. The miracles of the midbar are the miracles of every day: just getting up, getting through the day, going back to sleep, getting up again. To survive the midbar, we are allowed to count, to “number” our assets, to know in advance where our inner strength lies and what within us is on the verge of shutting down, and, finally, to be reassured that we will make it, even if our personal midbar lasts the proverbial forty years.”
Larry Hoffman wrote these words well before any of us had heard of the coronavirus, yet his comments about the need for stamina resonate with us in this moment. It won’t be 40 years. Hopefully, not much longer. But, however long we need to remain quarantined and distanced, we know that every one of you counts, and you can count on us to remind you that each and every person is a vital part of our community, and how blessed we are to have each other.