Have you begun to ration your news consumption yet? Many of us are finding it the only way to get through a week in these strange and stressful times. Just scanning headlines can feel as if one is absorbing blow after blow of disappointment, concern, anger, and yes, of fear.
One source of guidance – I do not say consolation – in these days is the knowledge that our ancestors have been down this path before. Somehow, those who came before us developed the discipline, the courage, the ability to continue to give Shabbat all the respect of focused Jewish practice in the face of worse situations than ours. In fact, it becomes a kind of special Jewish resistance to refuse to let the fears of the moment overwhelm the legacy of a lifetime.
The fourth book of the Torah, which we begin to read again this Shabbat, is called BaMidbar. The parashat hashavua is therefore also called BaMidbar, since the name is derived simply from the first recognizable word of each section of text.
BaMidbar is translated “in the wilderness.” (The Hebrew is so much more evocative than the English name “Numbers.”) In this endlessly repeated paradigm of Jewish existence, something compels us to leave the encampment at the foot of the mountain where we have taken refuge since leaving Egypt. We set out into an unknown future, heading for a destination that it turns out none of us will reach. The uncertainty of each day is compounded by emotional blows: repeated outbreaks of violence, fueled by the unrelenting stress of fear.
Our ancestors wondered as they wandered in the wilderness of Sinai: Who to believe? What path to follow? How to stay safe? And how to survive the blows of chance that will continue to fall? Later generations have had reason to ask the same questions, and now it is our turn.
The time of their wilderness wandering did not at first seem that it would be long. Geographically, the land of their dreams was not a long journey away. But things don’t always work out as planned. There’s an old Yiddish (of course) expression for that: mensch trakht, Gott lakht, “human beings make their plans, and G*d laughs.”
I imagine a G*d laughing not derisively at our naïveté but sadly, the way that Jewish humor is a form of laughter through and despite bitter tears. We make our plans, we look forward to a happy, sunny, or at least safe future for ourselves and those we love.
We who take refuge in plans, we don’t like uncertainty. It is anxiety-provoking and unpleasant. The wilderness of BaMidbar is difficult and fearsome, and seems to take a lifetime to traverse. Whether it actually did or not, it felt like an unending horror.
The discomfort of uncertainty is nevertheless necessary if we are to move. The anguish of frustration and fear is the spur that we need if we are ever to arrive at that place which is the other side of the wilderness. And, just like love, we cannot avoid uncertainty, anxiety, and fear if we would live a full, meaningful life.
Where are we going? On an endless, uncertain, frightening journey. We don’t know where it will lead.
We cannot have the reassurance that our plans will be realized. All we can have is the eternally present experience of our ancestors which flows through us all, whether we were born or chosen into this people.
We can only hold hands (masked and gloved for now!) and step forward together, into the uncertainty, into the future.
We are taught that for our people, the way forward is together: kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh , all Israel stands in support of each other. (Babylonian Talmud, Sh’vuot 39a)
And we are taught that in this struggle we Jews find our greatest meaning: if the uncertainty never ends, so also our Torah – source of the meaning that supports the structuring of a life – will also never end for us.
Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?
To teach us that if one does not surrender oneself to the wilderness,
one cannot understand the words of Torah.
And to teach us that just as the wilderness is endless,
so is the Torah without end.
(Pesikta d’Rav Kahana)