The Lessons of the Journey

by Arliene Botnick, May 27, 2020

Rabbi Ben Bag Bag has told us that all the answers are there. The Torah can explain it all: “Turn it and turn it again for everything is in it.”

As we have just begun the fourth book of Torah, Bemidbar (Numbers), it’s enlightening to discover what we might learn from our ancestors’ experiences some 3200 years ago.

We know there was a problem: they had to leave Egypt if they ever wanted to be a free people who could worship one God. We learn that every journey has a reason for its beginning. They left Egypt after 430 years because life was unbearable, because Moses was there to lead them, because it was time.

We learn that the journey is not going to be easy; it will take some 40 years of wandering in the “Bemidbar – the Wilderness.” It was both a physically challenging journey and a spiritually confusing journey.

In order for the journey to succeed, order had to be followed. A census was taken; it had to be known how many were on this journey, what their responsibilities were, how the sacred objects (the tablets of stone) could be safeguarded. They also had to learn, in this huge mass of people, how illnesses could be treated (Parashat Naso) and how legal matters could be resolved.

We later learn in Parashat Beha’alotecha about the need to have 70 experienced elders share leadership. It was too much for one person, Moses, to handle it all.

There are several things we learn in Bemidbar that can challenge our modern sensibility: Miriam’s “bad mouthing” Moses’s marriage to a Cushite; how a husband was to treat his wife if she was suspected of adultery, the abstinence imposed of Nazarites; how they were to treat the stranger yet how we were to conquer the peoples in the land we were about to enter.

Just focusing on an overview, right now, perhaps we feel, in 2020, that we too are in a wilderness. We had to start a journey because we were in danger, in danger from an “invisible” enemy, Covid19. Initially, (not for 400 years of course) we endured, we kept going on as usual, but then we couldn’t go on “in the usual way.” We had to begin our journey to survive and we entered unchartered waters, a wilderness where we weren’t sure of which direction to go: face mask, no face mask; social distancing, no social distancing (look at the pictures of the crowded beaches and parks in Toronto, or California, or Florida). We know where we’d like to end up, safely, and in health, with the virus defeated, but it isn’t a straightforward journey. There will be setbacks, “golden calves,” along the way. Unfortunately, as so often is the case, like the elderly and the frail who were attacked by Amalek because they were elderly and frail, will not reach the end of the journey.

And like our ancestors, we have to count – how many we have, how many can do which tasks, how many are needed. And like our ancestors, we have to accept that one voice, one leader, cannot and should not have the final say. We have to listen to all the voices of wisdom (and they have to listen to each other). Our ancestors made it to the promised land, but even there, there were challenges, setbacks, confusion.

Some kind of vaccine will be discovered, but hopefully, we will have learned that, to keep safe, healthy, the lessons of the journey cannot be forgotten.

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