Building B’midbar in Covid 19
The Book of Numbers is known as B’midbar in Hebrew. This word means – a place of speaking or a wilderness. Literally it is the space between Mount Sinai and the Promised Land where our people wandered in dialogue with G!d and found the rhythm of life in covenant with G!d. It is the place where G!d spoke to us and gave us what we needed to be an interdependent, empowered and caring community. This physical and spiritual wilderness lay between the enslavement in the civilization of Egypt and the free society we would create as a people in the land of our ancestors, the Promised Land of Israel.
This is quite an auspicious time to read this book of B’midar. As this month of June begins, we are B’midbar – in the unknown, in flux, in motion. We remember our pre-Covid 19 days, and at the same time, we remember the feeling of being under quarantine and stay at home orders. We also hope for a promised land where we may not be in danger of Covid 19 and not have to socially distance or wear face masks. Just like for our ancestors departing Mount Sinai, we are not sure when and how we will get to the promised land of our time. As we endure this time in the B’midbar, we have two different models of communities who experienced time in the Wilderness also. One was the community of Babel, setting up their settlement in the wake of Noah’s flood.
In Genesis 11, we read: 4 And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
This contrasts with the building project of the People of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness – the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. In Exodus 25, we read: “8 And let them make Me a sanctuary that I (G!d) may dwell among them. 9 Exactly as I show you — the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishings — so shall you make it.”
Both of these projects happen B’midbar – literally and figuratively. Each occurs in a locale that is physically isolated after traumatic events. Each represents a community focusing on a project to elevate its participants with construction projects.
As we enter this month rhetorically I ask, “Which model do we want for our community as we work to sustain ourselves to get to a promised land, a place of elevated community? Are we trying to create a Tower like Babel, for our aggrandizement; or Mishkan, a space for the Divine Presence to settle amongst our gathered community?”
To me the answer is obvious. We don’t want a Babel, a place of confusion, built for the sake of building…grand, competing with divine,driven our own ego and hubris. The Rabbis offer midrashim, imagining the tower being grand but empty of values and caring for the humans creating it.
“Come, let us build us a city and a tower.” Many, many years were spent building the tower. It reached so great a height that it took a year to mount to the top. A brick was, therefore, more precious in the sight of the builders than a human being. If a man fell down and met his death, none took notice of it; but if a brick dropped, they wept, because it would take a year to replace it.
— Louis Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/a-common-language/
My goal for the year is to engage all the members of our community in a wide variety of settings and moments to build and sustain both the physical sense of Mishkan, our campus as a place of gathering, as well our virtual sense of Holy and shared space. More than a tower to see, it’s a tent – something that is made of fabric that we have to collectively weave and craft. As we gather in worship, exert energy for learning, make connections with friends, offer support in times of tsuris and challenge, and celebrate moments of awe and simcha, we build a strong fabric of community that shelters and focuses us as we become more than the sum of our parts. This Covid 19 reality is new to all of us, just as it was for our ancestors B’midbar. We have some great plans and ideas of what this will look like and how it will work, but it is only when we work together that we can create the type of Holy community that will sustain us.