So.. for the first time in fifteen months, I am speaking to you from the bimah of Temple Beth Israel’s sanctuary, where you will join me and Earla and Dorothy next week.
Some of you have been attending Shabbat worship regularly on Zoom, but some have not. And I know what is foremost on your mind. What burning question you have to ask. What you can wait no longer to know.
Rabbi, what in the world happened to your hair?
I know, right? Covid Hair. The direct result of not having a haircut for six months. At which point I just said: cut it all off, and let’s see what we’ve got. And this is what I’ve got. The real deal. In all its gray glory.
Like the torn black ribbon we wear during shiva, Covid Hair is just one outward manifestation of what’s been going on inside of us for these long months. So are the sweatpants. And the few additional pounds from lack of exercise. These are the physical markers of what we’ve been through emotionally. The sadness and loneliness. The longing for a hug. A drink with friends. A Shabbat shared together – really together.
With many of us now fully vaccinated – as we all should be, if we can – we are finally making plans to reunite next week here in the sanctuary, albeit with masks and social distancing and no pads on the pews and no oneg, at least for now. Step by step, we will be moving out of the long, lonely darkness of this devastating and deadly pandemic, into the light of community.
So how appropriate that, on this Shabbat of transition, we begin the reading of the Book of Numbers – or, in Hebrew, Bamidbar: In the wilderness.
In parallel to the journey we have made in the past 15 months, Sefer Bamidbar takes the story of our ancestors from “the first day of the second month, in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt,” through forty years of wilderness wanderings, to the edge of the Promised Land, “on the steppes of Moab, at the Jordan near Jericho.”
The people will witness God’s power and test God’s patience. They will pine for the familiar and fear for the future. They will take their places in the Israelite camp – each tribe, each clan, each family, with a job for now, and a place in the Promised Land in the future. They will learn God’s reward for promises kept, and divine punishment for promises broken. They will create – with God’s guidance – the rituals that will organize their daily lives, and the laws that will guide their communal behavior.
They will try God’s patience with their complaints, born of fear and fatigue. They will be blessed by Moses and by the priests, Aaron and his sons, for a life of wellness and peace.
All of this sounds familiar to us, as we have moved through this wilderness of the past 15 months. Leaving behind the familiar and fearing for what will happen the next day, and the next. Getting frustrated and angry with the pace of progress – and sometimes paying the price for ignoring the warnings to be patient.
But just as our ancestors eventually learned to put the welfare of the community over their own personal desires, so have we. We, like the Israelites, have learned to cope. And we have grown wiser and kinder as a result of living ba-midbar.
The rabbis teach that the Torah was given in fire, in water, and in the desert. Each signifies a different kind of sacrifice.
“Given in fire” – this comes from a folk tale that Abraham was willing to jump into a fiery furnace rather than renounce his faith. This was the great faith of an individual.
“Given in water” – this is the story of Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped into the Sea of Reeds even before it parted, with all the Israelites behind him. This was the great sacrifice of the entire people.
“Given in the desert” — this was ongoing sacrifice, which lasted for forty long years.
We have seen all of these types of sacrifices made in every community throughout our country in the past fifteen months:
- The individuals who jumped into the fire – who placed everyone else’s welfare above their own health and safety: front-line medical professionals, first-responders, school custodians, grocery store clerks.
- The whole communities who waded into unknown, waters: teachers, parents, food-bank workers, social workers.
- Americans of every age, who have patiently donned masks and washed their hands, kept their distance, and got vaccinated as soon as they were able — aching to hug their loved ones, get on an airplane, have dinner with friends. And now, finally, having their prayers answered because they acted immediately and kindly and responsibly.
All of these sacrifices have made 15 months seem like forty years, haven’t they? But here we are – at least me and Earla and a couple of other people working on the transition this weekend – so that all of us can say “here we are” next Friday night.
We will ask for your continued patience as this process unfolds. Masking and distancing in the sanctuary – and yes, getting your vacccines as soon as you are able. We have been, like our ancestors at the beginning of Sefer BaMidbar, starting out on a journey full of fear and worry and faith. We are, like our ancestors at the end of Sefer BaMidbar, at the bank of the Jordan River, eager to cross over, but not yet in the Promised Land.
And we know, like our ancestors once they did ford the river, that the journey to true freedom requires constant vigilance, and responsible behavior. If they can do it, so can we.
You know, the first thing that happens in Sefer BaMidbar is that God calls on Moses to take a census of the people – well, at least of the men. But it wasn’t just the numbers that God was looking for. Moses and Aaron were to go from clan to clan, b’mispar sheimot, recording every single name.
We have recorded so many numbers over 15 months – those who have died, those who are hospitalized, those who have recovered, those who have received vaccines. But we must remember every count is about people. As our tradition says of the Jews in the census, “each is important in himself. Each must accordingly feel the great responsibility he has for all his actions, for every action of his can improve the condition of the world.”
This is our mission and our responsibility. Each and every one of us has the power to help and to heal – both ourselves and one another. We have learned during this pandemic just how important it is, that we be able to rely on each other. Out of tragedy, this is our gift. A gift we must treasure and share, as we move out of the darkness of the wilderness toward the light.
Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission. As we say together: Amen.
©2021 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Torah Gems Volume III, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg and translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House Ltd., 1992), p. 7. Quotation from Bamidbar Rabbah 1.
 From the source known as “Shaloh” in Torah Gems, p. 8.