For more than a year we have been living in a kind of limbo, a strange pause-time when we were cut off from everything familiar in the past and uncertain about what would happen in the future. It often felt as though time had lost all meaning. Without much structure to our days and weeks, we struggled to keep track of what day it was. With our usual activities abruptly ended, our plans put on hold, we had to find new ways to live.
Vaccinations have allowed us to begin to do many of the things we have been missing — seeing family and friends, traveling, worshiping together, eating in restaurants. Yet we still feel uneasy. Can we really take off our masks? Are we ready to leave the safety and comfort of our homes? Has life changed in fundamental ways?
In some respects our experience parallels the experience of our ancestors in the wilderness. Our Torah readings this month are from Ba’Midbar, which is the Hebrew word for “in the wilderness.” In the wilderness, the Israelites also were in limbo. They had been liberated from bondage but were not yet ready to enter the Promised Land. After the compelling narratives of Genesis and the beginning of Exodus, nothing much “happens” in Leviticus. In this part of Torah, there is no past or future. Like us, the Israelites are not traveling much or “getting anywhere.” They spend their time in the wilderness, learning how to feel God’s presence. Perhaps it is only in wilderness-time, when we are not driven to make progress and accomplish something, that we can experience the Divine.
By the beginning of Ba’Midbar, the Israelites have organized themselves as an orderly society with God at the center. They have received the Torah, built the tabernacle, and brought offerings that bring them close to God. They are poised to enter the Promised Land, and they seem to be ready. Then everything goes spectacularly wrong. They are unable to leave their slave mentality behind. They keep looking back at the security they had in Egypt, too frightened to move forward, lacking the faith to enter the land God has promised them.
The following chapters are filled with rebellion, idolatry, death, and lack of faith. It’s a story that reminds us how difficult change can be. On some level we all understand how hard it is to change. Each year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we take a hard look at our lives and try to turn ourselves around and commit to doing better, being better, in the coming year. But somehow the next year, we often find ourselves back in very much the same place.
Yet the Torah does not leave us in that bleak reality, discouraged by our seeming inability to change. By the end of Ba’Midbar, there is a new generation poised to enter the land and this time they will succeed.
The Torah shows us that change is hard, but it is possible. Like the Israelites, we have been in the wilderness, often lost and disoriented, but sometimes finding ways to slow down and connect with ourselves, with nature, and with what is most essential and important in our lives. We have not always been happy. But we have gotten used to a different way of life. It is tempting to stay with what is familiar, and sometimes we are afraid to move forward.
We are now poised to enter a new phase. And we have a choice. We can respond to this moment as the older generation of Israelites did, looking back, and holding on to what is familiar, even if it was painful. Or we can be like the new generation, filled with hope and possibility, carrying with us what we have learned in the wilderness as we begin to create something new.
Hannah Orden is the rabbi of the Reconstructionist-affiliated Congregation Beth Hatikvah in Summit. She is now the president of the Summit Interfaith Council and is a founding member of the council’s anti-racism committee.