For the past several weeks, the Torah has been setting out the rules and regulations that we can use as guideposts to help us down our spiritual path. We’ve learned about the laws regulating the lives of the priests, how and when to commemorate Pilgrimage Festivals, Shabbat, and other holidays central to our practice, rules around profanity, murder, tithes, and so much more. We’ve come from hurriedly fleeing Egypt to setting up law and order. The wandering Jews can now be characterized as “civilized,” according to Rabbi Lisa Edwards, “and the proof is that all the tribes are lining up in perfect order exactly according to instruction, surrounding their newly constructed sacred Tabernacle, preparing to march through the wilderness toward the Promised Land.”
The Israelites have now left Mt. Sinai after a year and find themselves in new territory, in the wilderness. This week’s Torah portion, B’midbar, literally means “in the desert” or “in the wilderness.” You can find many writings expounding on the symbolism of the wilderness. Does it represent feeling lost or opportunities for renewal? Perhaps it’s about emptiness or the potential for growth? Like in so much of the Torah, you are welcome to create your own interpretation.
Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, we are now living in new territory. I have written the line “we are in unprecedented times” more than I can count. If you had told me six months ago that we would be going on week ten of sheltering in place, with schools and camps cancelled, most of the world juggling working from home with creating activities for our children, millions of businesses closed, and worship taking place over Zoom, I wouldn’t have believed you.
Rabbi Yoel Kahn writes, “Despite our achievements and progress, as individuals and as a people, many of us may find that we are ourselves b’midbar, in the wilderness. Our plans, our health, our careers, and our families’ lives do not unfold in the ways that we have anticipated or yearned for, and we find ourselves wandering in uncharted territory; a diagnosis or death can suddenly upend the carefully constructed balance of our ordinary patterns. It is not that we must be in a place of pain or despair or lost in order to commune with God; rather, it is in these times that we may be more open to the encounter. The Psalmist describes reaching out to God from a lost place: ‘From the narrow place I called out to you; You answered me from the wide place of Yah’ (Psalm 118:5).”
This week’s Torah portion describes how the Israelites are divided into tribes and assigned responsibility. So do each of us have responsibilities today. We’re socially distancing from loved ones and friends. We’re wearing masks, not because they protect us but because they protect our fellow citizens and those essential workers on the front lines. Teachers have had to pivot with almost no notice while parents have become home-schoolers. But I think the brightest moments have come from individuals or groups finding ways to help and give back.
As Temple Jeremiah’s Member Engagement Director my primary responsibilities are to, you guessed it, engage our members. Engage in interesting programming, engage with the clergy and staff, and engage with fellow members. I had to get creative when any sort of physical gathering ceded in mid-March. Temple Jeremiah has moved a number of our programs online, including creating opportunities for small groups of people to gather over Zoom and discuss a mutual interest. Our very first Virtual Lounge was a cooking conversation around favorite Passover recipes. A group of us chatted and the conversation shifted to how we were all holding up during this challenging time. One of the participants was a Special Education Kindergarten teacher. She shared that she was preoccupied thinking about her students and their families. Some of the parents had been laid off, many of the students were used to receiving free school lunches, things were hard. Every single participant on that Zoom asked what we could do to help. Social Justice is such a cornerstone to Temple Jeremiah’s identity, the principals of wanting to help others are second nature to us. I had already been planning on connecting with temple members who are teachers and now I was spurred to do so that week. We asked teachers to tell us if their students needed anything, taking that information and creating a webpage so members could contribute if they so chose.
Last week I received a phone call from a member who saw the webpage and wanted to help. This member has a store with toys and she wanted to put together a box to donate for this special drive. She apologized because she couldn’t donate a ton. She actually can’t replace her inventory right now. But she had a few of the toys and games requested and she wanted to make a box for the families that could use it. As I coordinated the effort and hung up the phone I sat still for a moment. I truly felt the joy that comes from belonging to a community where someone who could probably use assistance themselves is doing what they can to help someone else. (If you haven’t already, visit our page of .) I asked to guest write this week’s Shabbat Shalom message so I could share this story with all of you. Engagement may not be the first word we think of these days but thanks to technology, I see so many of you engaging with Temple Jeremiah. My husband jokes that he has “attended” more Shabbat Worship over Zoom these last few weeks than he ever has been able to in person. We would love to continue to bring you interesting virtual programming, especially this summer. I invite you to with any ideas or thoughts you have for socially distant temple programming, I will do my best to bring the program alive! Visit our , , and pages to see what is already in the works.
As we wander through this wilderness, take a moment to notice the silver lining. Not only about spending more time with our families or for those able to take on a new hobby, but the moments of selflessness and compassion. The front line workers amongst us and the members helping others, the teachers, our hard-working clergy, staff, and volunteers. This Shabbat find a minute of calm and appreciate how we might wander out of the wilderness even stronger and more connected than when we entered it.