The COVID-19 pandemic was — and remains — a transformative experience, much like the Israelites’ journey through the wilderness. As we delve into the book of Bemidbar (Numbers), which chronicles the Israelites’ desert sojourn, we can find parallels that offer insight into navigating the strange new world that has emerged in the wake of the pandemic.
In contemplating our time in the wilderness, let us consider two contrasting biblical viewpoints. The first is a prophetic verse from the Book of Jeremiah:
“Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said Adonai: I accounted to your favor The devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride — How you followed Me in the wilderness, in a land not sown.” (Jer. 2:2)
The second verse, from Psalms, forms part of the Kabbalat Shabbat services recited every Friday night:
“Forty years I was provoked by that generation; I thought, ‘They are a wayward people; they would never know My ways.’” (Ps. 95:10)
Both verses present contrasting perspectives on the desert experience. Was it a time of intimacy and connection with God, akin to a honeymoon? Or was it a period of ongoing conflict and waywardness? Reconciling these viewpoints after the passage of time can be a complex endeavor.
But history teaches us that experiences can be remembered and interpreted in various ways. (History is what happened; historiography is an interpretation of what happened.) The American Revolutionary War, for example, is viewed differently depending on one’s vantage point. Some (the American colonists) saw it as a legitimate battle for independence, while others (the British) considered it criminal sedition. The Talmud reminds us that, in the end, a judge is only accountable for what their eyes see (San. 6b), emphasizing the subjective nature of perception.
Similarly, the COVID-19 experience encompassed both profound hardship and moments of unexpected beauty. The pandemic inflicted an unimaginable toll on human life, leaving behind a trail of grief. And, amidst the darkness, we witnessed acts of solidarity and heroism. People worldwide united in song sung across neighborhood porches, communities applauded essential workers, and human beings offered and found solace during shared tribulations. Funerals became devoid of physical embrace, denying families the comfort of presence during intergenerational milestones. The losses we all incurred are too staggering to name. It was just so very hard.
And yet, amidst severe challenges, glimpses of hope and resilience emerged. The skies cleared as air travel decreased, and birdsong regained prominence. While synagogue buildings stood empty, the warmth of minyan shifted to digital platforms. People gathered for virtual meals and online classes, fostering connections that transcended physical limitations. Neighbors became better acquainted, albeit from a distance.
What does it mean for a time to be simultaneously arduous and beautiful? It signifies a commitment to honesty. The desert is a multifaceted place, and our recollections of it reflect that complexity. We dare not only remember the good. And we dare not exclusively remember the bad. Both were and remain true.
As we look back at the COVID-19 pandemic, we remember the magnitude of suffering and loss and we also cherish the moments of unity and humanity that arose in response to adversity. The journey through this modern wilderness has challenged us, transforming our lives and communities in profound ways. May we carry the lessons learned forward as we face new horizons, guided by compassion, resilience, and a deep appreciation for the interconnectedness of our human family.