After the Wilderness (Bemidbar)
Rabbi Menachem Creditor with Kayley Romick
(May 18, 2020)
COVID has been a wilderness, marked by upheaval and struggle as well as by unexpected growth. It is an experience that simply cannot be seen in just one way, just like the forty years the Israelites spent in the desert. Today we begin a new book of the Torah named for that desert journey, in which there was wonderful newness and terrible difficulty.
Perhaps the book of Bemidbar (Numbers) might offer a roadmap for traversing the strange world that has emerged day by day as we discover and create new pathways toward each other, even when limited to our own homes. Consider these two opposing biblical viewpoints, reflecting upon our time in the midbar, the wilderness.
First, a prophetic verse from the Book of Jeremiah, a central motif in the Musaf service for Rosh HaShannah:
...הָלֹךְ וְקָרָֽאתָ בְאָזְנֵי יְרוּשָׁלַֽםִ לֵאמֹר כֹּה אָמַר יְהֹוָה זָכַֽרְתִּי לָךְ חֶֽסֶד נְעוּרַֽיִךְ אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָֽיִךְ לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּאֶֽרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה...
...Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said Adonai: I accounted to your favor The devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride— How you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown...
Second, this verse is from Psalms, and is part of the Kabbalat Shabbat services recited every Friday night:
אַרְבָּ֘עִ֤ים שָׁנָ֨ה ׀ אָ֘ק֤וּט בְּד֗וֹר וָאֹמַ֗ר עַ֤ם תֹּעֵ֣י לֵבָ֣ב הֵ֑ם וְ֝הֵ֗ם לֹא־יָדְע֥וּ דְרָכָֽי׃
Forty years I was provoked by that generation;I thought, “They are a senseless people;they would not know My ways.”
Which is correct? Was the desert experience a honeymoon with God? Or was it a place of unending conflict? How can we ever know which remembrance is accurate after such a long time?
History is replete with complex experiences that can easily be remembered in varying ways. For instance, was the American Revolutionary War a legitimate battle for independence or criminal sedition? It depends upon whose eyes are witness, whose sense of history is doing the framing. As the Talmud teaches:
...אין לו לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות
“…a judge is only accountable for what their eyes see.”
It is possible, after all, for both sensibilities to be true at the very same time. Just as the experience of COVID has been horrific, with a price in human life beyond comprehension, there have also been glimmers of precious light. And it’s been beyond hard.
And yet. Harmonies were sung from balcony and bedrooms spanning the globe. Applause regularly erupted for cashiers and sanitation workers and nurses and those everyday heroes who kept the world balanced.
And yet. Synagogue buildings were empty and the comfort of a minyan became digital. Funerals were hug-less, as were intergenerational family moments. And the number of souls we buried… There simply aren’t words.
And yet. The skies became clearer with fewer flights in the sky and birdsong returned. More people convened for many a Zoom meal or online class than ever could have in person. We came to know our neighbors just a bit more.
What does it mean for a time to be both hard and beautiful? It means we are being honest. The desert is a complicated place.
And, when we look back at it, we remember.