By Bettijane Eisenpreis
“On the first day of the second month, in the second year following the exodus from the land of Egypt, the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting …”
This book, which we call Numbers in English, is called B’Midbar, In the Desert, in Hebrew because it chronicles the wandering of the Hebrew people in the Sinai Desert – wanderings which took 40 years until the generation that left Egypt could die out and be replaced by their children. As always in the Torah, the first portion of the book bears the name of the book itself.
I am writing this commentary at the end of April, five and a half weeks into the COVID-19 lockdown in New York City. By the time it is published, being stranded in a hostile desert might not seem as relevant to daily life as it does at this moment. But right now, I feel keenly for those Israelites wandering in a barren desert with no end in sight. They miss all the food and friends they used to enjoy in the “fleshpots of Egypt,” while conveniently forgetting that they were slaves there. Moses is stuck with the unpleasant duty of explaining, over and over, that these desert wanderings are for their own good.
People tend to remember selectively. When my husband and I became engaged, we traveled from Wilkes-Barre, PA to Scranton, 18 miles away, so that I could introduce my fiancé to relatives who had immigrated to the United States from Germany to escape the Holocaust. During our visit, my cousin’s grandparents were watching a TV program about “The Prisoners of Spandau,” the Nazi leaders who had been imprisoned for their crimes They became indignant at the sight of a US Army sergeant guarding the prisoners. “To think that a lowly sergeant would be assigned to guard those German generals!” one exclaimed, apparently forgetting that those German generals would gladly have murdered them. “The fleshpots of Egypt” indeed!
Today, we find ourselves in our own desert. It may look like a city with tall towers, but Times Square or Fifth Avenue might as well be the Sahara. We look back at life two months ago and it seems unbelievably wonderful. We were free – free to suffer under the stress of everyday life, with its benefits and its drawbacks. Although we are forced to shelter in place, we do have time to pause, to connect and reconnect with long-lost friends by phone or Internet, to reflect on the good things in our lives – our families, our friends, our homes.
This “pause” has, at least for some of us, helped to remind us of what we do and who we do it for. It has strengthened family ties and forced us to consider how we use our time. We can see now that we have the option to continue to make time for what matters.
It’s getting warmer now; the winter has ended. I went to the dentist around the corner yesterday and was amazed at the flowers that had blossomed in Gramercy Park while I was confined inside my apartment. Life does go on, even in the desert. And our wanderings will end – not tomorrow, but sometime. Life will never be the same, but change is a constant. As Jews we know that we have survived many other perils. We will endure. We can only hope that we, and all the world, will have learned something from this desert experience.