Do you ever get anxious before going on a long trip? What do you have to organize and prepare before you feel ready to pile into the car and get going?
For the third week in a row, we have been reading in meticulous detail about the Israelites’ planned departure from Sinai, in order to begin their journey to the Promised Land.
It is supposed to be a triumphant journey for the former slaves. Over the last two weeks, we read about the precise census taking of all men of military age, and a choreographed staging of the tribes, each under its own flag, forming a vast army of God, with the Tabernacle at its very center.
Finally, the Levites complete the Tabernacle and light the Menorah for the first time. With the blasts of trumpets, the Israelites are ready to set forth! Moses bids farewell to his dear father-in-law, who will not be joining them on their journey, and the people are ready to march: “Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!”
We, however, who have read this book before, know that the triumphant beginning is only a false start: No sooner do the Israelites actually leave Mount Sinai then all hell breaks loose. The people complain bitterly that they are hungry, rebel against Moses, and even talk about returning to Egypt! Thus begins a much longer journey, about fear, rebellion and disappointment, which will last nearly 40 years, until a new generation of Israelites will arise.
This book will be a guide for future generations as it poses its basic questions: How do we carry God’s Comforting Presence with us, when we are no longer camped at Mount Sinai? How do we maintain our faith when the ground seems to shift under our feet, and we don’t really know where we are? Can we maintain our trust and equanimity, and stand up to our fears, when the world seems so dangerous and unpredictable?
In a time of pandemic and social disarray, we recognize the Israelites’ fear as our own. But we resist giving in to it: we take a deep breath and realize that this is only part of a constantly changing story. We will learn, like the Israelites, to discover meaning in the journey, to find strength, comfort and faith, even when we don’t know what the next chapter may bring.
Rabbi Dan Liben, Temple Israel of Natick, Schechter Alumni Parent