Posted tagged ‘Bamidbar’

Silver Linings and Rays of Hope: A COVID Reflection of Hope

May 23, 2020

This Shabbat, when we read Torah, we began our journey through its fourth book; the Book of NUMBERS.  As you may or may not know, the meaning of the Hebrew names of the books of the Torah do not necessarily match their English names.  The Book of NUMBERS is a perfect example.  In English, it is called “NUMBERS” because in its beginning, it does a deep dive into the taking of a census of the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.  Its Hebrew name – BEMIDBAR – delivers quite a different message.  BEMIDBAR means “In the Wilderness.”

As I contemplated our entering the text of BEMIDBAR, I could not help but grasp the parallel with our own lives at this juncture of history.  For, like the newly liberated Israelites, we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness.  Just like our ancestors who were faced with the challenges of needing to traverse their wilderness, with all its difficulties and dangers, we, too, find ourselves faced with the challenges of needing to traverse a wilderness all our own.

Our wilderness is not like theirs.  It is not a wilderness which stretches across miles.  Its difficulties are not the burning desert sun, rough roads to travel, thirst and hunger.  Its dangers are not the fear of attacks from wild beasts, snakes, scorpions, and marauding tribes.  The difficulties and dangers of our wilderness come from this highly contagious and lethal disease which afflicts us today.  They are the difficulties embedded in our need to change our lives so dramatically in order to protect our lives; masks, physical distancing, sheltering at home, shortages at the grocery store, massive unemployment and the poverty and deprivations it entails, the upending of our world economy, the severely diminished education of our children, our inability to be in the physical presence of loved ones and friends, and, of course, the uncertainty of what the future holds for us – the new normal – and when that future will arrive.  As for the dangers, they are self-explanatory, or at least they should be, but for some inexplicable reason there are too many in our society who refuse to acknowledge them.  They are the dangers of our enormous vulnerability to a horrible disease which has the power to inflict unbelievable and prolonged suffering, and possible death, not to mention that unless we behave carefully and responsibly, we could bear the guilt of inflicting all of this upon others, including the people we love.  This is our wilderness.

Yes, the wilderness can be dark and dangerous, whether it be the wilderness of our ancestors or our own.  But even in its midst, there are silver linings and rays of hope which can be found.  Next Thursday evening, we as Jews will commence the celebration of one major silver lining, one major ray of hope, which our ancestors encountered in their wilderness. That silver lining, that ray of hope, changed the world and the history of humanity for all time, and changed it for the better.  The celebration I speak of, of course, is Shavuot, the festival of our receiving the Ten Commandments.  It was in the wilderness, with all its hardships, pain, and suffering, that our ancestors found themselves standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there, receiving directly from God, the ten most important rules which would, from that time forth, serve as the guiding principles for the advancement of humanity.

Like our ancestors, as we traverse our wilderness of COVID, there are silver linings and rays of hope to be found.  They do not diminish the hardships we must endure, just as the Ten Commandments did not diminish the hardships endured by our ancestors, but they can redeem our wilderness sojourn from being bereft of any meaning whatsoever, just as, in the same way, God’s gift of the Ten Commandments redeemed the wilderness sojourn of our ancestors.

Some may wonder:  What are these silver linings and these rays of hope which manifest themselves now, in our darkest hours?  They are rays of hope which have the potential to light the path to a better future in what eventually will be a post-COVID world.  But what are they?

One of them is that it has been determined that as a result of the pandemic and the restrictive changes in behavior that it has required of us, the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has been reduced by 17%, dropping to the levels of 2006.  This is but one of several positive impacts our lockdown has had on the environment, as we have been allowing nature to heal itself.  It shows us that if we can choose to change our behaviors, we can begin to ecologically repair our planet.  While it should go without saying that we cannot maintain lockdown protocols forever in order to save our planet, still we can change our attitude of “business as usual” and seriously engage in environmentally responsible behaviors, such as truly committing to the pursuit of alternative clean energy sources.  We have it within our ability to turn back the doomsday clock.

Another ray of hope found in our wilderness is that after 72-years of an ongoing Middle East conflict, it has taken this pandemic, with all its pain and suffering, to start to open a door for, at least a new beginning of Arab-Israeli cooperation.  Three Arab states – states that for all these years have been sworn enemies of Israel – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait – have turned to Israel for assistance in their struggles against the COVID-19 virus.  This is in no way a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is a glimmer of a recognition of how the countries of the Middle East need each other in order to survive and prosper.  It is but one step toward a resolution of this tragic conflict.  As we march into the future, this moment should not be lost or forgotten by its players, Hopefully it will serve as a building block toward a kinder, gentler Middle East.

Still another ray of hope is born out of the very anguish of our wilderness.  This public health crisis has only accentuated some of the social problems that long existed before the world ever heard of the Coronavirus.  Specifically, the fundamental injustices inherent in the vast socio-economic divide which exists in our nation and the dire consequences of our failure to humanely address that divide.  As we watch how this virus has devasted members of our economically disadvantaged community, way out of proportion to their numbers in our society, we can no longer ignore or turn a blind eye to the evils of runaway, abusive capitalism, the maintenance by way of neglect of a permanent underclass, and the innate evil of systemic racism.  These are intolerable conditions in a society which claims to be great, enlightened, and just. – “With Liberty and Justice for ALL.  If, after the nightmare of witnessing what this pandemic has done to the disadvantaged of our society, we do not commit ourselves to closing the socio-economic divide, then the guilt rests on our shoulders.  If nothing else, this crisis has shown us the necessity of our building a more just society, but we need to choose to act on it.

Still another ray of hope coming out of our current dilemma is that we can no longer afford to think in nationalistic terms.  Yes, we can be patriotically proud of our nation, but we cannot continue to view our nation as being superior or separate from the community of nations.  Last week, I watched Rachel Maddow interview Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.  She asked an interesting and insightful question – “If you could turn back the clock to a time when you could have done something different in your response to the virus, when would that be and what would you have done differently?” His response was even more insightful. He said that while he was tempted to say March or February, actually he would have turned that clock back even earlier, to when we first were hearing about the outbreak in China.  With the wisdom of hindsight, he continued, saying that as soon as he heard of the Corona Virus outbreak in China, he would have started to prepare for its coming to New York. For, as he pointed out, in today’s world, when a virus strikes anywhere in the world, it can strike here tomorrow. All that is necessary is for one infected person to board a plane.  This pandemic should have taught us that we can no longer afford the foolishness of naively ignoring that we live in a global society.  Like it or not, we are intimately and inextricably bound to each other. Indeed, this is not new wisdom. As far back as 1624, the poet John Donne spoke of this reality when he penned his famous poem, “No Man Is an Island.” If, as a result of this pandemic, we can embrace this sense of international interdependence – that as a human race, we are at our best when our nations work together to build a better world – then the future we will build will be brighter and better than we ever dreamt.

Even in these dark hours, let us come to recognize and work to realize the lessons to be found in the silver linings and the rays of hope that, too, are products of this tragedy.  They cannot compensate for the suffering and the loss of life we have and we will endure, but they can show us the way to build a better world for tomorrow.  They redeem these days from the cruel fate of being totally meaningless blips of horror on the timeline of history.

Counting Jews

May 30, 2012

This past Shabbat, we began the reading of another book of the Torah.  In Hebrew that book is called BAMIDBAR, which means “In the Wilderness” but in English it has another name – NUMBERS.

Why the difference between the Hebrew and the English names?  It is a matter of culture.

In the ancient culture of the Jewish people, books, and indeed weekly Torah portions were named after the first significant uncommon word in the text.  Tonight’s text begins with the statement “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe bamidbar Sinai” – “Adonai spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.”  While, of course, the words “Adonai” and “Moshe” are unquestionably more significant than “bamidbar,” still since so many sentences in the Torah begin with the phrase “Vaydaber Adonai el Moshe” we skip it and go to the next significant word.  Ergo “Bamidbar.”

The English title of Torah books follows the Greek tradition of giving them names which are more reflective of their content and theme.  Indeed, with the exception of the book of NUMBERS, the more familiar names of the other books of the Torah are actually their Greek names – GENESIS, EXODUS, etc.

So why is the book of NUMBERS called the book of NUMBERS?  Because it begins with a taking of a census of the Jewish people in the wilderness.  This census is taken in the second year of their sojourn in the wilderness and it is taken tribe by tribe, and included all males twenty years of age and older.  According to the text, the total count was 603,550.

This is not the first time in our history that Jews were counted.  There is an earlier census in the book of EXODUS which comes up with an identical number.  Then, of course, we see in the very beginning of the book of EXODUS that the number of Jews accompanying Jacob into Egypt were 70.

It would appear that counting Jews is a longstanding practice among out people; one which we still seriously engage in today.  It remains very important for us to know the numbers: How many Jews were killed in the Holocaust?  6 million.  How many Jews live in Israel? – 5,931,000.  How many Jews live in the United States? – 6,588,065.  How many Jews live in the Quad Cities? – approximately 800.  How many Jews belong to Temple Emanuel? – Approximately 155 households.  How many Jews attend our religious school? – 63.  How many Jews attend Shabbat services – sadly usually under 20.  There is no question but that in Jewish life we are always playing the numbers game.

But perhaps for all these millennia, we’ve had it all wrong.  Perhaps rather than focusing our attention on counting Jews we ought to be focusing it on whether or not our Jews count.

This, my friends, is both a private concern and a community concern.

Privately, each and every one of us should be asking ourselves, “As a Jew, how much do I count?  Have I made my life into a Jewish presence?  Have I consciously applied my Jewish values in the daily conduct of my life?  As a Jew, have I stood up and been counted, when it really counts?  When my days on earth are over and I am physically gone, will my presence on this planet have counted for any good?”  It is simply not enough for us to be counted among the Jews.  If our lives, as Jews, are to have any purpose whatsoever, then we need to be counted on as Jews.  We need to be there, living our lives as lives of mitzvot, both the ethical mitzvot and the ritual mitzvot.  We cannot just talk about Torah.  If we are to count as Jews, we need to live Torah.

Just as we need to make sure that we count as individual Jews, we also need to insure that our Jewish community also counts, and counts as a Jewish community.  Just as we as individuals need to be there, our Jewish community needs to be there.  As a community, we need to be up front and visible, presenting to the world around us a model of what it means for a community to operate according to Jewish values.  We need to make of our community, a community which is proud of its Judaism; not just privately or secretly proud but publicly proud.  As a Jewish community, we have nothing to be ashamed of.  Quite the contrary!  We should wear the badge of our Jewish identity with pride.

Just as we, as individuals, must have our every action influenced by our Jewish values, so should we as a community have our every action influenced by those values.  Our community should be driven by those values.  We should not wait for others in the general community to signal for us what is the right thing to do.  Our Jewish tradition informs us as to what is the right thing, and as a community we should act upon that information, even if it means that sometimes we stand and act alone.  By conducting our Jewish communal life in this way, that is how we make our Jewish community count for something; count for something good and something truly Jewish.

When Jews come to the synagogue to observe Shabbat, by our very presence in the sanctuary on Shabbat, we have not only been counted in our minyan, but more importantly, we have made ourselves count as Jews.  We have made ourselves count as Jews because our very presence raises up the sanctity of Shabbat; this day declared holy by God from the very first week of Creation.  We have made ourselves count as Jews by actively affirming our intimate connections with the Jewish people, our Jewish heritage, and our special Jewish relationship with God.  Accomplishing all of that – taking such actions as to help us to better count as a Jew – is far more important and far more meaningful than merely being counted as a Jew; being considered Jew number 13 of 21 who happen to have attended the Shabbat service this week; than being Jew number 35 on the Temple membership roster.

And just as our presence in the synagogue on Shabbat is a demonstration of how we can count as Jews, more that merely be counted, so is our presence at such Jewish values activities as adult education and Tikkun Olam activities also demonstrations of how we can count as Jews.  For when, for example, in the Fall, the members of my congregation walk in the CROP Walk Against World Hunger, while the numbers of our congregants who walk are impressive, still it is not so much the numbers who walk but rather that all of us who are walking, are walking for a cause; are walking for a cause very much in consonance the teachings and values of our faith.  In so walking, we are demonstrating those Jewish values in action.  In other words, in that moment, as Jews, we count.

My prayer for all of us is that as we continue to travel the course of our lives, we will forever strive to live Jewish lives that count.