Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
This is the week everything changes. The first ten chapters of the book of Numbers are about the pageantry and grand preparations for our great national journey of uplift. No longer will we be on the path from oppression in Egypt. No, midway through chapter ten we start on the road to the Promised Land. We are finally on our way! We are no longer fleeing but moving with direction and purpose towards a brighter future!
One might imagine that the Israelites were joyful at this moment, that they anticipated the freedom which beckoned just over the horizon.
Nope. Not at all.
The careful planning and ceremonious ordering fell apart even as the journey began. The Israelites did not rejoice – they complained! They wanted better food. They remembered the fresh food which they ate in Egypt, while conveniently forgetting their enslavement, and they worked themselves into a frenzy. Moses bore the brunt of their anger and fell into the deepest despair of his career. He was ready to throw in the towel. Rabbi Noah Farkas writes: “After the greatest liberation in history and the greatest revelation in history, it is lunch that brings Moses to the breaking point.”
God, of course, helps Moses, but that is for a different drash.
Instead, let’s consider why Torah takes ten full chapters to set the stage for an orderly and triumphant journey, and then chronicles how those plans unravel. Indeed, the entire rest of the book is about just that – everything that went wrong along the way.
The journey should have been straightforward, a few weeks or months, if only life didn’t get in the way. Perhaps that is the message. No matter how carefully we plan, we cannot control the world around us. Nor can we control the people around us. Indeed, sometimes we even struggle to control ourselves. The plan was great in theory. It’s just that the people were not ready. So, over the course of the book of Numbers, God will develop a new plan, a slower and more painful plan, which will eventually get us through the Wilderness.
Today, COVID 19 has upended all of our plans. It has infected millions, killing over 400,000 people worldwide and overwhelming our health care systems. It has wrecked our economies and infrastructures and caused additional pain and trauma through the imposed isolation of social distancing. And, in the United States, is has also shed new light on the devasting and systemic racism which stands in stark contrast to the central values of our republic. If the goal of our founding fathers was to truly create a nation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of our citizens, then the plan has failed for entire swaths of our population. We are in the Wilderness and the plan isn’t working.
Despair is one reaction. Another is to do as God instructed Moses: don’t go it alone, get help.
Today we are in the separate yet connected wildernesses of COVID and of racism. Yet, amidst all of the pain and suffering, fear and rage, are signs of hope. More people have worked together to protect the health of others through social distancing and medical research than ever before in human history. Protests and sustained political pressure following the murder of George Floyd have created never before seen momentum for new interracial partnerships and the kind of national soul-searching that can lead to real change.
We are deep in the wilderness, but there is a Promised Land. Perhaps now we are finally on the path from slavery to the promise. We will need a new plan, flexible enough to change along the way. It will take longer that we wish. It will not be easy. Yet I have every faith, that one day, together, we will arrive.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras