A Message from
Rabbi Michael D. Howald
A Message from
Rabbi Michael D. Howald
As May draws to its close, we begin a new book in our annual cycle of readings. Beginning in the last week of May and continuing though June and most of July, we will read from the Book of Numbers, called Bemidbar in Hebrew. Bemidbar is a polysemous word in Hebrew with a variety of translations, including “in the wilderness”, “through the desert” or “in the nomadic pastures.” This describes the setting of the Book of Numbers, which takes place in the wild fields and hills which lie between the cultivated pastures of ancient Egypt and Canaan. This setting, a place which is neither domesticated nor barren, serves as a metaphor for the people of Israel at this stage of their development, neither a nation nor just a collection of fellow travelers, as they journey toward a destination they cannot yet see.
We stand today in the same “between” place as our ancient ancestors. For the past 2 months we have sheltered in place, conducted our meetings and services online and waited for some definitive sign we have arrived at the end of our quarantine. Despite our hopes, however, we now are beginning to recognize that we will live in this space between what we knew before the pandemic and what the post-COVID-19 world will hold for longer than we expected. In his groundbreaking book, Rites of Passage, Arnold van Gennep spoke of a such a period, where we are no longer in the world we knew and not yet in the world that will come as a ‘liminal’ space between the familiar and the new.
For our ancestors, to be Bemidbar , in the land between slavery in Egypt and nationhood in Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel), was to occupy a threshold with both opportunity and challenge. They were destined to reach the other side but the wilderness between molded them into something greater than they were when they entered. In the wilderness, the people of Israel, tested by adversity and blessed by miracles, forged themselves into a nation whose influence continues to reverberate in our modern world. They did so by abandoning the rhythms and rules that had governed their previous lives in servitude and embracing a reality in which they were free to choose their own destiny. Even though many of them longed to return to the world they once knew, even with its limitations and burdens, because they understood the familiar and were anxious about the unknown, they still continued onward. Today, we empathize with them more than ever before, standing as we do in our own rite of passage from pre- to post-pandemic.
In the post-COVID world that is in the process of becoming, we will need each other more than ever before. The nearly 1000 Staten Islanders who have died, the over 21,000 residents of our city who are confirmed and probable victims of this deadly virus, will remind us ever more of the fragility and preciousness of life. As we occupy this space that is neither the height of the pandemic nor its end, shattered and sobered by the toll of death and economic dislocation, we may draw upon the experience of our ancient ancestors in the wilderness.
Just as the Israelites committed themselves to the journey to the other side, so may we. As they found inner reserves of resilience and flexibility to carry them across, so can we. As they bound themselves together despite the impatience and frustration that comes with a passage whose rules and limits are uncertain, so will we. Just as did those who went out from Egypt, we will reach the other side, and it will be together. In the meantime, Chazak v’Ematz ! May we all be strong and courageous, kind and patient, until that great day when we will all worship together in person again!
Rabbi Michael Howald