There is a great scene at the beginning of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, where a crowd is gathered to hear Jesus recite the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is teaching off in the distance so it is a bit hard to hear and we, the viewer, are in the back with the riff-raff. “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall inherit the earth,” one of the most famous lines in Western religious history, is uttered in muddled speech from this perspective and one character says, “I think it was blessed are the cheesemakers,” to which a second character responds, “What’s so special about the cheesemakers?” And yet another answers, “Well obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturer of dairy products.”
This is Scripture as allegory. As metaphor. As text which invites you to interpret broadly, to even mis-hear it, and in the case of this legendary comedy troupe, make you laugh.
But this week’s Torah portion, Bamidbar (Numbers 1:1-4:20) is as stark and unadorned as the very wilderness in which it is set. The Children of Israel are in the Sinai desert on the first day of the second month of the second year of their liberation from Egypt. This journey in the sparse and unforgiving desert where they are reliant on the miracle of wells and manna from God, will be a gruelling and challenging signal moment in Jewish history that will last a full forty years. When Bamidbar opens, there are 38 more years to go. This week in Beersheva it was 93 degrees. Imagine walking in circles for 40 years like that. Not fun. Talk about Zoom fatigue.
There is an all too relatable sense of disorientation in the desert, hence the classical tropes of desert mirages; of hallucination brought on by thirst; of anger, discontent, rebellion. All of this is brought to bear throughout the Torah narrative as the Children of Israel slowly lose the generation that was born into slavery and build a new nation made up of those who only know what it means to be free. The brutal conditions of the wilderness are meant to scrub Israel clean of the brutal conditions of slavery. This is the beginning of the end of the slave mentality as we know it. At least in the Torah.
There will be the destruction and exile of the Babylonian conquest in 586 BCE. The utter devastation and dispersion from the Land of Israel by the Romans in 70 CE. The Crusades and the Inquisition in Medieval Europe. Massacres, pogroms and dislocation in the Pale of Settlement, culminating in the Holocaust and genocidal anti-Semitism during the Second World War that took more than 6 million Jewish lives.
The older I get, the more amazed I become that we have not only survived as a people but have thrived; have not just made it over the finish line but have made meaningful and transformative contributions to Western civilization for nearly two thousand years of exile and diaspora as one of the world’s smallest yet profoundly influential civilizations in human history.
Why? Theologians, historians, and philosophers, along with rabbis and mystics — all great minds — have pondered and attempted to answer this question. Sermons, books and articles populate the literary landscape of millenia with their theories.
But I’ve got to tell you that since the quarantine for the COVID-19 virus began, the most prosaic of answers has satisfied that question for me. Why do Jews survive crisis after crisis and what can we share with our neighbors about the path forward, always the path forward?
“And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day in the second month, in the second year after they were come out of the land of Egypt, saying, ‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their parents’ houses, according to the number of names…” (Numbers 1:1-2)
Reason for Survival Number One: Show up. State your name. Be counted. Ninety percent of life is showing up, they say. So do it. It actually makes a difference. Presence is everything when it comes to making it through a challenging time. At baby namings and brises; at bar and bat mitzvahs; at graduations and weddings; in the hospital room, at the graveside, in a shiva home. Show up and be counted. The wondrous fabric of Jewish life is held together by radical accountability of presence. Say it: Hineni. Here I am.
In the Haftarah for this Shabbat, the prophetic reading from Hosea, we encounter the prophet in the midst of darkness and great sorrow. His heart is torn by a sense of betrayal, tragedy and abandonment. It seems that his world has come undone, not an unfamiliar feeling for any of us in these dark days. But the destruction and dislocation give way to the light and the hope of love. Hosea starts low but strives for and finishes high, promising in the face of a seemingly insurmountable brokenness a glorious reunion of love and purpose.
“I will break the bow and the sword and the battle out of the land and I will make them to lie down safely. I will betroth thee unto me forever; I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness and justice and in lovingkindness and in compassion. I will betroth thee unto me in faithfulness and you shall know the Eternal, That I Am.” (Hosea 2:20-22).
Reason for Survival Number Two: Hope conquers fear. And hope is not some abstract concept unreachable, far out of our hands. Hope is near to us and best expressed through our daily encounters with others: In the execution of justice and righteousness that gives us hope in the ways we settle conflict and dispute; in lovingkindness and compassion, expression through our care for others, especially those most in need; and finally in the faithfulness of presence, in the promise made by uttering the phrase “Here I Am.”
Metaphor has its place, to be sure, in our reckoning with ancient messages and meaning. But sometimes, as Sigmund Freud notably said, “A cigar is just a cigar.”
Be Counted. Do Good.