6/13/20 B’ha’alotkha, 14th Week
Parashat B’ha’alotkha has so much in it, and this year, it seems that many of its lessons speak directly to us, because this Torah portion gives us a window into the daily lives of the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. If this sounds like a familiar theme, it is. Even though we read the Torah every year, over the last few months, the lessons seem to jump off the page in a new, powerful, timely way.
In this morning’s parashah, we see signs that the Israelites are beginning to fray around the edges. I don’t know exactly how long they have been in the wilderness by this point in the Torah, but if our three plus months of sheltering-in-place are any indication, we know that it doesn’t take long before we become moody, stressed out, depressed.
As we have seen around the country over the last few weeks, people get impatient – they want to be out and about, and “back to normal,” even if it means putting themselves and others at risk. We see similar behavior in our parashah as well.
Miriam and Aaron give in to sibling rivalry, for instance.
They gossip about Moses and Moses’s wife. They wonder what makes Moses so special. I have to believe that the journey has worn on Aaron and Miriam, and before we are quick to judge, let’s ask: how many of us have said something we shouldn’t have over the past few weeks? How many of us are feeling short-tempered, or like our filter isn’t quite on? I wonder if Miriam and Aaron had been well-rested and relaxed, would they have said what they did?
B’ha’alotkha describes the Israelites yearning for the ‘good old days’ – they complain about being in the wilderness and paint a fantasy of what their lives were like back in Egypt. Nostalgia overcomes them as they long for the food they imagine they once had, Numbers 11:5-6 says, “We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
Never mind that the manna tastes like rich cream and that surely when the Israelites were slaves, they did not have the delicacies they recall so fondly in this passage. But we can understand, can’t we?
In our parashah, God hears the Israelites whining and sends them quail to eat. The people dig in ravenously, yielding to their craving for meat. But this part of the story does not have a happy ending. Numbers 11:33 says, “The meat was still between their teeth, not yet chewed, when the anger of Adonai blazed forth against the people and Adonai struck the people with a very severe plague.”
Again, it is easy to draw a parallel – although not with regard to God striking people down. Perhaps we are not craving quail and or reminiscing about our time in Egypt, but we are craving freedom, normalcy, a return to what was. Maybe we are yearning to go to our favorite restaurant, or to get a haircut. Maybe we want to go shopping – in a store, not online. Or perhaps we want to get back to the office or to send kids to summer camp – we are missing what we had.
But as we are seeing around the country in places that have opened faster than Santa Clara County, there has been a spike in Covid-19. The plague is still active, again, NOT at the hand of God, but I have an empathy for the Israelites in the wilderness that I did not have prior to this pandemic.
I understand their cravings.
Their world has been upended, and even though their lives as slaves were not good, they were familiar. It’s not really about the meat or the cucumbers, or Egypt that the Israelites miss in this parashah – it’s their routines, it is what they once knew, it is the sense of familiarity that has completely disappeared – they want comfort, and they can’t get it.
This parashah reminds us that we are not the first to live with stress and discomfort, to live in unfamiliar conditions not knowing when they will end or what the end result will be.
It seems to me that even God’s manifesting in a cloud is complicated, as Sarah mentioned in her D’var Torah. God’s cloud is at once a comforting sign that God is present among the people, and it is also disrupting feature of life. When the cloud departs, the people must pack up and move – even if they don’t want to, even if they are comfortable where they are.
The end of chapter 9 in the Book of Numbers is quite repetitive as though to drive home the point that the Israelites are not in control – God is in control. The Israelites move and camp and move again only when God sends the sign to do so, and the sign can come at any time.
Numbers 9:22 says: “Whether it was two days or a month or a year – however long the cloud lingered over the Tabernacle – the Israelites remained encamped and did not set out; only when it lifted did they break camp.”
In his comment on this verse, the 16th century Italian commentator Sforno says, “this is now already the fifth time that the Torah belabors the subject of these journeys, something totally unprecedented. It alerts us to how sometimes the people did not even have time to send their beasts to graze, and sometimes they had to dismantle everything at very short notice, any plans they had made having to be abandoned.”
The end of S’forno’s comment strikes me – “any plans they had made had to be abandoned.”
It’s funny to think of the Israelites in the wilderness making plans – where were they going? What were they doing? All they had was with them – all their possessions, their family members, their animals – everyone and everything was right there.
I don’t think S’forno is talking about vacation plans or restaurant reservations – but what about the mental lists of things to get done tomorrow? Or family meals? Or plans to talk to a neighbor – these things also got canceled when God determined it was time to move.
We have had to abandon a lot of plans over the past 3 and a half months – vacations, dinners, get-togethers, in-person Bat Mitzvah celebrations, and mundane things like doctor’s appointments and projects at work – we don’t know when we’ll be able to reschedule them, just like the Israelites did not know when they would be able to reschedule.
And just like we are making plans for after Shelter-In-Place is lifted, with the knowledge that we could be told to go right back to sheltering-in-place, the Israelites knew that even if they did reschedule their plans, the plans might be disrupted again – if it was time to move, it was time to move.
We don’t know what the future has in store for us or when the future will happen. And we don’t have a Divine Cloud-like GPS telling us when and where to move. Perhaps then, this time of Covid-19 is teaching us to be present to the moment. Yes, we can plan for the future, but we must plan with the knowledge that the future might be disrupted too.
It can be unsettling not to have a grasp on what the future will look like or when it will arrive – of course, this has always been true, we are just living with the awareness now.
This awareness and being present to the moment have silver linings, as we have discovered, and my hope is that when we do step out of our Zoom boxes and back into a less virtual reality, we will hold onto what we have learned.
I don’t think we’ll be sheltering-in-place for 40 years like the Israelites wandering the wilderness, but it could be awhile longer, so when we feel short-tempered and stressed – and that will happen, let us take a deep breath and hold onto the silver linings, and remember that we are not the first people to live with disruption. We will get through this, and we will emerge with a greater sense of gratitude for all that we have.