Every book of the Torah has two titles. The Hebrew title is derived from the first word or the first most significant word. The other title comes from the Latin translation which was later translated into English in the 1611 King James Version, this is the basis for the many translations into the languages of the countries in which the WUPJ studies Torah. This week we begin the fourth book of the Torah, BaMidbar/’In the wilderness’ and Numbers (Latin-Numeri) referring to the theme of taking the census in the opening chapter. This Shabbat our study of the Torah portion is influenced by our all-consuming immediate experience of the global Coronavirus pandemic, hence my argument that this week we there is much to learn from both titles of this biblical book.
The common term, ‘numbers’ refers to the census of male Israelites, 20 or older, who would make up the military needed to conquer the Promised Land. The text is very specific in the total, 603,550 men with an additional 22,000 plus Levites, though most biblical scholars reject these as factual. While there is no need to argue about the factual truth of the biblical census, one cannot argue about the unimaginable numbers of this pandemic, as I write this, the coronavirus has infected more than 3 million people resulting in more than 200,000 deaths.(29/4/20) These numbers/statistics change hourly, but the epidemiological data is studied and interpreted to understand the danger of the virus. Though, scholars argue that the numbers in the Torah should not be taken literally, studying Torah requires that we interpret the text’s numbers into our now data driven pandemic lives.
These past weeks of shock, fear, and isolation have all been determined by numbers, the data of infection, illness and death. We no longer can be physically present for a minyan at a funeral, brit-milah, or a weekly Shabbat Service. Most of us were not permitted to celebrate our Pesach Seders where usually we filled our tables with family and friends. Zoom and Face Book have changed our experience of numbers as our computers count everyone who enters and leaves. Sometimes the numbers are visualized as faces and/or names while other times the numbers are popping hearts and thumbs up with a running list of scrolling texts. Will we ever count the attendance of a service the same way? We have opened our services to anyone who can log-on, do we count these numbers as synagogue members and what will these numbers mean in terms of financial support? We cannot yet begin to fully understand the economic devastation and crisis created by the pandemic nor its impact on our Jewish institutions, because there is not yet enough data!
The second name, BaMidbar, ‘In the wilderness’ is the location of the book’s entire narrative. The people arrived here after leaving Egypt, crossing the Sea of Reeds and receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The wilderness is needed as the location where Israel will ‘wander’ so that a new generation will be born for the conquest of Canaan, the time needed to mature into the people who can enter their Promised Land. This wandering through an unknown and frightening place toward a destiny has an immediate parallel to the pandemic. None of us were prepared for the global devastation and still today we do not know when the health demands and economic crisis will diminish enough for us to experience a ‘new’ normal, our not yet defined next ‘Promised Land’.
It is the issue of fear in the wilderness that links us so immediately through our experiences with the pandemic. This week’s portion illuminates the need for a critical mass of young men who can fight to protect the people, yet the wilderness produces enemies that will ultimately defeat those counted as ready. Fear of the unknown confuses and depresses the biblical community so that ultimately they refuse to accept themselves as capable to enter the land, to embrace the destiny of being a freed people. The pandemic has created terrifying scenes of mass graves, insufficient medical supplies, and mass unemployment. The fear is multiplied by the unrelenting unknown certainty of when we can safely return to the lives we had and expected. ‘WHEN’ can we safely re-engage as dynamic Jewish communities? ‘WHEN’ is the question that must have haunted biblical Israel; yet, they wandered through the barren and arid place following pillars of fire and cloud to calm them. ‘WHEN’ will we calm down?
After counting all the statistics and finding some sense of calm in the Coronavirus wilderness, we will be forced to deal with the same primary theme as the narrative in this text, leadership. BaMidbar/Numbers challenges us with several examples of flawed leaders and the vulnerability of the community. The biblical community that is counted in these opening chapters had been slaves who experienced the trauma of the Exodus, the inexplicable event of Sinai and the chaos of the Golden Calf, but none their leaders, Moses, Aaron and Miriam will enter the land with them. When you are disoriented and terrified by a never before experienced virus and economic collapse, you need leaders who will calm, comfort and offer a vision of hope. Since most of our global Jewish communities are still experiencing the pandemic under a dark cloud of fear, we do not have enough perspective to judge whether our leaders can guide us beyond the crisis which is why the lessons in this book of Torah are important sources of wisdom.
Like ancient Israel, we too will get past this wilderness and find a not yet defined ‘new normal’. We do not know how long we will be wandering, confronted by still changing statistics of infection and death nor the projections future danger in the wilderness of a world without a vaccine nor cure for the coronavirus. So now let us study our past in order to gain perspective for our common future.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ).