Parashat Bemidbar 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Bemidbar
By Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (’16)The summer is nearly here, more and more adults are vaccinated, and it seems new opportunities for gathering will become available. And yet, the language of “reopening” or “returning to normal” feels complicated for me. Setting aside for the moment all the issues that already existed in the old normal which were exacerbated and highlighted during the pandemic but largely ignored on the level of institutional change, the concept of “returning” now rings false when faced with the reality of how many people have been out and about right along. Some due to financial necessity, some due to youthful feelings of immortality, and some due to misinformation and the politicization of the virus. Now there are reports of variant strains of the coronavirus, that herd immunity may never really be possible, and that the vaccine protects us from the worst of the illness, but doesn’t make us impervious to carrying it and potentially passing it on to someone who has not been vaccinated.

I am looking forward to visiting with my parents, who I haven’t seen in person in about 18 months, and getting out with my husband, who has barely left the apartment in 18 months. But I am still wary of public gatherings, and keenly aware that we are still not out of the woods, and may never be. I was asked recently what I thought about being indoors unmasked with someone who has not been vaccinated, who hasn’t worn a mask anytime they could avoid it throughout the pandemic, and has been traveling in recent months. I thought the question itself absurd.

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Bemidbar, we read about a census of the Israelites and the instructions for how each tribe is to camp and march arranged around the Tabernacle. Chapter two of Numbers ends with the statement that the Israelites did as they were commanded, and Chizkuni adds that they did so all the years they wandered the wilderness and that there was even uniformity in how they broke camp and moved each day, recamping each night, in their particular formation.

We are not being given such rigid instructions now on how to arrange ourselves, and even if we were we would likely not follow them. However, I do think there’s something to be learned from the way the Israelites fall in line (or circle, as it were), in this parasha. There is a sense of individual purpose (or at least individual tribal purpose), along with the sense of communal responsibility and their part of the greater whole. Each position has a part to play in keeping each other and the Tabernacle safe, and who they rub shoulders with while in formation is important to maintaining the order and security of the camp.

As those of us who did more or less quarantine for the better part of the last year and a half finally emerge from our cocoons, let us take our place among other community-minded people so that we may proceed safely together. May we arrange ourselves with public health and care as the Mishkan in our center, each willing to communicate with the greater whole but careful to only stand shoulder to shoulder with our own pods and tribes. Someday, may we enter a promised land where all are free to intermingle safely, with that Mishkan of public health more securely and permanently fixed. And may we all breathe freely.
Rabbi Lizz Goldstein (AJR ’16) is the rabbi of Congregation Ner Shalom, a heimish Reform synagogue in Northern VA, where she lives with her husband and cat.