May 20, 2020
In the Wilderness: Staying the Course While Navigating Trouble Waters
There is saying of the Tlingit Indians, a coastal tribe of the Pacific Northwest, that seems apropos as I write this, days after the Wisconsin Supreme Court overturned Governor Evers’ Stay-at-Home Executive Order: “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.” Somehow, a global pandemic has become a political issue in the United States, even though the COVID-19 virus should be a matter of public health, not of political discourse.
Political discourse too easily becomes political discord these days, and perhaps it is fitting that in our Torah cycle, we will soon find ourselves Bamidbar, in the wilderness, the book of the Torah which describes the Israelites’ desert wanderings. (Bamidbar is known as Numbers in English.) Despite the fact that the Israelites had witnessed miracle after miracle in Egypt, that the sea had parted and then roared back, saving them from Pharaoh’s pursing army, that they were free after hundreds of years of slavery, and that they had each witnessed Mt. Sinai’s roiling smoke and trembling, culminating with hearing God’s voice utter the Ten Commandments….well, you’d think that maybe Israelites would have learned to trust in God and to stay the course for a minute or two. But no, even when Moses is on holy business on Mt. Sinai, the Israelites cannot hold it together for one month and ten days. In a complete “freak out” moment, they demand that Aaron, Moses’ brother and High Priest, help them create a Golden Calf to worship instead of God. Even though the punishment for this grave error of judgment is severe (a plague…sounds a bit familiar these days), the Israelites’ fear of the unknown leads them into “bitter complaining” against Moses’ leadership. Evidently, they completely forgot their covenant with God, so recently renewed.
The Book of Bamidbar picks up where the Book of Exodus had ended. The Israelites have been encamped in the Sinai desert for two years. They are moving on at last, heading to the Promised Land. But things go downhill quickly, and Bamidbar records the Israelites’ increasing mutinies against Moses’ steady leadership. The Israelites begin to kvetch about pretty much everything. After one crisis is quelled, “riffraff” appear, inciting the people to engage in mass protests. Disdaining the manna that God sends to feed them, the people clamor for Egypt’s menu offerings of meat, melons and cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic, evidently forgetting that they had been enslaved in those “good old days” in Egypt. More kvetching and flashpoints follow in the story, and discontent breeds more discontent. Out-and-out rebellion finally erupts in parashat Korach, when Korach, Moses’ first cousin, gathers 250 chieftains to rise against Moses’ leadership. Is it any wonder that this section of the Book of Bamidbar is called “The Rebellion Narratives”?
Much of the country has been under Stay-at-Home orders since some time in March. Rebellions against the orders given by our state and city officials to keep us safe from a highly contagious and deadly virus have broken out in what we call “Red States,” and Wisconsin’s Supreme Court weighed in against what I’d call the steady leadership of Governor Evers. I think the Court issued an unwise ruling, and you may agree or disagree, depending upon the source from which you get your news. In a couple of weeks, my state will begin Stage 2 of a very slow re-opening process with benchmarks in place which will trigger a possible re-shutting down should our new virus infection rates go back up. On the day I write this, Washington State reported 148 new cases of
COVID-19 (we’re not opened up), and on the same day, Wisconsin reported 502. Georgia, which had opened many businesses such as tattoo parlors, nail salons and bowling alleys two weeks ago (essential?), reported 795 cases that day. Let me mention, for contrast, Hawaii, which has the advantage of geographic isolation. The Islands’ governor issued a Stay-at-Home order and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for absolutely anyone who lands in one of their airports. Their new virus count today: 1 case. When I read these statistics, a phrase comes to mind from an old television show: “Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” but evidently, that sentiment is not shared by all, and some in Wisconsin headed straight to the bars for a beer after the Court’s ruling.
So, we Americans continue to be rugged individualists, each listening to our echo chambers telling us what it really means to be free. But I think what we should be asking ourselves is what is our best response to the fear of the unknown and the anxiety it produces. The Book of Bamidbar teaches that humans are prone to react strongly against authority as a way to sublimate their own fears. We’ve seen this play during the pandemic, too. Some people have heavily armed themselves, dressed in flak jackets, and painted their faces like the American flag, insisting that being ordered to stay home in order to halt a pandemic tramples upon their freedom. Other countries responded differently. After 10,000 Italians died in a very short period of time, the entire country shut down in early March and soon afterwards began to sing to each other from their balconies to keep everyone’s spirits lifted. We have now lost over 90,000 Americans in a very short period of time, each a precious soul created in God’s image. We can’t pretend that the American economy and too many people’s personal finances have not also been ravaged. But governmental solutions can be found to help those who need financial support. No one can earn a living from the grave.
I think the lesson of the Book of Bamidbar is that we must stay the course, that we need to have faith that we will, in time, reach the Promised Land–in our case, a virus-subdued world. It took the Israelites 40 years of traveling to reach their goal, with those who rebelled doomed to die out before the new generations could enter. I’ve been mostly at home for nine weeks now, but for the health and safety of all my fellow citizens, I’m planning to stay the course and slow walk towards the Promised Land, b’sha’ah tovah, when the time is truly right. May you all make the decisions that are right for you and your family, and most of all, may you stay healthy. This is my prayer every single day.
With caring and respect—