In our torah cycle, we are currently in the book of numbers or in Hebrew ‘B’midbar’ – in the wilderness. Whilst the title describes the Israelites physical space, it also gives an understanding of the spiritual and emotional state of the newly freed people. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks speaks of this moment in the desert as liminal space. Quoting anthropologist Von Gennep, he describes how societies create three stages of ritual that mark separation, incorporation and transition. The vast, empty space of the desert, can be described as a withdrawal for the Israelite people, to give space for them to transform from a nation of slaves to a nation of freed people. In last week’s parasha, sh’lach l’cha twelve spies are sent into Israel to scout out the land and get a sense of what might be to come. Ten of those spies come back terrified. They tell tales of giant grapes and huge people that the Israelites could never defeat. “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them,’ they exclaimed.
Whereas two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb returned ecstatic and excited for the possibilities of what was to come in their new land. God was outraged, as God so often is and decrees that the Israelites should wonder the desert for forty years, what is more, anyone over the age of twenty-one would not live to see their arrival at to the Land of Israel. Whilst this punishment may seem harsh, what God realised from the ten spies’ reaction was that while these people were physically free, they were not yet truly free from the mindset of slavery. It would take a generation before the Israelites could be truly free and that nation would be built over the course of the forty years in the wilderness.
We have learned all too well this year that with uncertainty brings anxiety. As a society we have spent more than a year now in relative stages of captivity. Fearful of the world outside and the possible risks of pandemic, and with constantly changing advice and regulations. We now find ourselves in a limbo. As restrictions slowly ease and the vaccination roll out speeds, we have a taste of a safer world. We can spy the end of the journey but with no clarity about what it means. The ten spies who entered Israel and were fearful, had a natural anxiety response to the unknown. Equally, Caleb and Joshua, who returned ecstatic, had a natural response to the possibilities of what was to come.
This week, NLJC are meeting for the first time in-person in over a year. Whilst many of the community rushed to sign up, excited to return to an in-person service (even with the many restrictions it brings) many of the community are still unsure, not quite ready to brave the giants of returning to face-to-face interactions. Whilst as a community we stand together and will support everyone, wherever they stand on the easing of restrictions and returning to a more normal world, each individual will be on their own journey. Although, I hope it will not take anyone forty years, we recognise that for some it will take longer than others. Whether we be the ten fearful spies or the Joshuas and Calebs of this world, this pandemic has been a series of traumas for many of society. As we begin to return in person and await Boris’s announcement on Monday we remember that we are in our own wilderness and will each find our way through at our own pace.