The Table is set and history beckons! The Jews are primed to enter the land of Israel, construct a Temple, and usher in utopia for themselves and for all mankind. Our parsha contains the first hint of trouble; the desert wanderers complain about the hardships of their wilderness travel and, ultimately, about their Divinely-delivered Manna. Absurdly, they pine for the meager and skimpy fish they consumed as slaves in Egypt. What prompted this sudden disillusionment and what caused their ultimate national meltdown witnessed in subsequent parshiyot?
At least part of this national moral unraveling was the new conditions they were facing. Since leaving Egypt their lives had been extremely eventful and action-packed. A week after their departure from Egypt they stood at the sea, gazing at a complete upheaval of nature. Six weeks later an entire nation amassed underneath the mountain of Sinai conversing directly with G-d. In the aftermath of the egel debacle a new national project surfaced – repentance and religious rehabilitation. Of course, after their penitence was accepted the grand mission of constructing the mishkan was launched. Life was indeed challenging but energizing and filled with ambitious projects and constant milestones.
After all these milestones are achieved the nation faces a new world order and a vastly different reality- life without “projects”. As challenging as the first year may have been it was laced with drama and concrete challenges. Having completed the cycle of the first year, the Jews now faced the prospect of a long summer and an extended journey through the desert to Israel. This condition of ‘extended reality’ can be overwhelming and the process can, at times, feel heavy. Without milestones sometimes life feels unclear.
The past three months of our Corona experience have been challenging but also have been marked by important milestones. In Israel, we were conscious of the viral threat early as Purim, though most Jewish communities around the world only awoke to corona awareness in the weeks between Purim and Pesach. Either way, we all experienced a dramatic and certainly different Pesach – completely unlike any previous experiences. As frustrating as Pesach may have felt, it also felt significant and even “momentous”. Preparing for Pesach without our full families was upsetting but we all sensed something historical. With Shavuot looming, we counted down the sefirah, realizing, sooner than later, that our restricted Shavuot celebrations would, none the less, be noteworthy. In Israel, we marked Yom Haatz’maut without the public fanfare and ceremonies which are so characteristic of this national day. This past few months have been trying but also dramatic.
At this stage we are entering a very different phase of this corona virus struggle – one that feels very similar to the challenge the Jews faced in this week’s parsha. On the one hand restrictions are easing and, hopefully, the harsh quarantined experience of the past two months will no longer be necessary. In Israel we have already enjoyed two weeks of semi-normalcy as well as our return to work, school and social activity. However, our experience these past two weeks has demonstrated that corona and its restrictions will remain a part of our reality for the near future. Hopefully, we will not face the same severe restrictions, but by no means will we resume a fully normal routine. Now that it is June, the immediate future provides no milestones, holidays, or “mile markers”. We are now facing several months of a long summer without normal summer activities. This period will, in some ways, provide a stiffer challenge than the initial period of harsh quarantine. It will require stamina, patience and emotional strength.
Our parsha’s conclusion narrates two additional troubling episodes- the unlicensed prophecy of Eldad and Meidad and Miriam and Aharon’s disparaging of Moshe. The first story describes two renegade prophets who had been excluded from the official group of seventy members of the High Court. Despite their lack of authorization, they publicly offer their unlicensed prophecy. Firstly, their unsanctioned prophecy is an audacious challenge to Moshe’s undisputed authority. Moshe’s loyal disciple, Yehoshua, urges harsh reprisal, but Moshe refrains, acknowledging the spiritual underpinning of their behavior. Whatever their noble intentions, their prophecy challenges Moshe’s absolute authority. Furthermore, their independent prophecy is a socially disrupting experience as, undoubtedly some segments of the population would be drawn specifically to these “non-establishment” prophets, as opposed to the ‘establishment’ prophets. This unregulated prophecy destabilizes Moshe’s authority and is a socially divisive event.
Miriam and Aharon, for their part, aren’t malicious, but their libelous comments ultimately lead to the criminal slander of the land of Israel by the spies. Libel and defamation always create an environment of verbal hostility which, in part contributes to the verbal antagonism toward G-d’s promised land by the spies. Of course, the critique of Moshe’s behavior also throws his leadership into question. These two minor events are socially disruptive but also subversive of Moshe’s authority. At this stage, the nation is vulnerable and future events will exploit these weaknesses.
The corona crisis has highlighted the necessity of unifying leadership and of social cohesion. Unified societies possess the stamina to accept socio-economic restrictions and will fare better than impatient and fragmented societies. Furthermore, nations with a broader shared vision are more willing to endure hardships to preserve the joint process of nation building. At all levels- national, local and communal, societies with share unified interest will fare better than fragmented societies. Furthermore, the social and economic stresses of managing the crisis can ignite latent social tensions. Managing the virus requires social cohesion but it is also true that the pressures of virus management can exacerbate latent hostilities and mistrusts. Thankfully Israeli society has so far demonstrated solidarity and general social patience, and with G-d’s help it will continue to “successfully” navigate the crisis.
Steady and unifying leadership are also vital for success against the virus. Inevitably, governmental decisions will inconvenience us and limit or freedoms. For those decisions to be palatable they must appear to be selfless, apolitical and in the service of a higher national goal. Success during this crisis isn’t dependent upon brilliant leadership capable of uncovering miracle cures- such remedies don’t exist. The policies and measures which will curb the contagion are obvious. We require leadership to inspire unified acceptance of these new measures which will so decidedly shape our new lifestyles.