Uncharted Territory, Then and Now


For 40 years our ancestors experienced a wilderness that was far from hospitable. At this time of sheltering in place, we are confronting our own wilderness of unknowns.

What can we learn from the strategies that God implemented for Bnai Yisrael to operate in their remote, unstructured place of wandering? What are the areas in which we can mobilize? Which tools will help us to persevere?

Bamidbar, the name of this week’s parasha and the book it introduces, means “in the desert” [Numbers 1:1]. The midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah asks why the Torah emphasizes that God spoke to Moshe from the wilderness. The midrash explains, “Anyone who doesn’t make themselves ownerless like the desert cannot acquire the wisdom of the Torah” [Bamidbar Rabbah 1:7]. The humbling effect of desolation provides Bnai Yisrael with a transformative experience that would enable them to better appreciate the Torah.

Professor Tamara Cohn Eskenazi explains that the “wilderness is a place — or time — without orienting landmarks or structure.” This week’s Torah portion demonstrates how quickly God establishes order in a place where there is none. The Book of Numbers immediately introduces specific tasks for Bnai Yisrael; the desert would not be a time for aimless wanderings.

Professor Jacob Milgrom writes that Bnai Yisrael “now prepare themselves militarily and spiritually for their march in the wilderness.” At the beginning of the narrative, we encounter the second census of the Children of Israel. The purposes of this census are to determine who is “fit to go out to the army” and to equip them for encounters with other nations in the desert. Though their march through the desert, as Milgrom explains, “will take them through hostile environments, both natural and human,” God continues to watch over them along each step of the way.

In the latter half of the Torah portion, we read about the counting of the tribe of Levi as well as the Levites’ ritual responsibilities — from setting up the tablecloths to the poles of the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting). Even though Bnai Yisrael is not grounded in one location, there are several tasks associated with the Mishkan (Tabernacle). By fulfilling these rites, the Levites are helping to maintain the sheltering presence of God.

At a moment of uncertainty in the desert, God provides detailed plans of action for Bnai Yisrael.

To a certain degree this pandemic has humbled us, like the midrash expounds. It has given us a new and deep appreciation for those who risk their lives on the front lines. This experience has also put us on high alert to safeguard our families. And most notably, this experience has impacted our routines — overhauling our daily rituals of work, home, childcare, the synagogue and beyond.

Since shortly before Purim, our days have turned into a vast midbar, or wilderness. Boundaries have been blurred, from when the workday begins and ends, from when our children are occupied and unoccupied, from when there is screen time and when there is not.

While we are in this unprecedented midbar, it has been powerful to see some of the structures created in the sand. Our quick ability to pivot to virtual platforms, be it in the workplace, ritual life or in learning environments, has created a new sense of order. Despite the many stresses, we have shown resilience. We have found oases of resourcefulness and connection to community.

At the school where I am a rabbi, we have seamlessly transported learning and communal celebrations to the virtual realm. We have crafted beautiful ways to connect on Zoom, utilizing music and the app’s spotlight feature, where families are highlighted individually as part of a live broadcast.

Last week my eyes filled with tears as I watched hundreds of parents place hands on their children — and grandparents virtually extend their hands toward their grandchildren — as they blessed them with the birkat kohanim (priestly blessing) as part of our erev Shabbat prayer service.

At a ceremony held virtually prior to Pesach, Israeli singer Yonatan Razel joined us live to sing his rendition of “Vehi She’amda,” which speaks about how in every generation, there have been enemies who arose and tried to destroy us but that God continues to save us. Yonatan explained the song resonates with us “at this time, even though the enemy is very different … something very, very tiny.”

However tiny, Covid-19 has forced each of us and our society to spring into action and engage with one another in ways we could never have imagined.

While we at times might feel desolate and alone in this unchartered territory — and experience tremendous loss during this battle — these past few weeks have provided glimpses of hope.

Similar to our biblical ancestors, one day we too will leave behind these wilderness wanderings. Perhaps the virtual plans we have quickly mobilized will help us once we are no longer in this desert. Or perhaps they will remain relics of the pandemic past. In the meantime, we continue to await the Promised Land and hope that healing and renewal are on the horizon. 

Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School and founder of MidrashManicures.com.

Candlelighting, Readings:
Candlelighting: 7:48 p.m.
Torah reading:
   Numbers 1:1-4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-2:22
Shabbat ends: 8:49 p.m.