By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
Too many times over the past nearly two years, I have been asked to expand my role as rabbi and assume the impossible role of prophet: When will this all be over? When will life return to normal? What will normal feel like? What will never return? What will we learn?
What will we mourn? What will we celebrate?
Admittedly, there is something attractive, even therapeutic, about the mental exercise of floating above our sense of crisis during the pandemic, to ask and speculate about the meta lessons we will glean from COVID. People are desperate for a way out, but in the meantime, such speculation is an intellectual form of escapism: If we can imagine a time of redemption from our difficulties, perhaps it makes it feel like such redemption is attainable.
On a grand scale, in several places, our greatest rabbis remind us that it is forbidden by Jewish tradition to calculate the time of a future Messianic redemption; in an act of irony and chutzpah, many of them stress this warning just before they cite verses from the Book of Daniel and other eschatological texts that hint at an answer to such calculations. But in this time, when people hunger for some hope for a better, more redemptive time, I prefer to learn by looking backward, to chart our path forward.
Indeed, my great-aunt Shulamith Elster, z”l, a brilliant Jewish educator, encouraged me in my decision to become a rabbi: At the time, I had taken the coursework to apply to medical school, but all of my extracurricular activities, summer experiences and work experience were in Jewish education and community-building. Aunt Shulamith said, “Eric, sometimes to know our future course, we can look backward, see the path we’ve walked thus far — and the path ahead becomes clear, because we’re already on it.” (She was right. I’m writing for the Jewish Exponent right now and not for The New England Journal of Medicine.)
With this in mind, I found a midrash on this week’s Parshat Beshallach particularly moving: Drawing on a verse early in the Torah portion (Exodus 13:19), we are reminded that Moses took it upon himself to fulfill Joseph’s dying wish from generations earlier, that his coffin (aron, in Hebrew) be carried out of Egypt at the time of redemption, to be buried in Israel.
The midrash imagines this aron carried through the wilderness, side-by-side with the ark (also aron) that contained the words of the Covenant after the gathering at Mount Sinai. When asked, “What are these two Arks (aronot, the plural)?” — the answer was, “This ark carries of our honored dead – and this ark carries Eternal Life [literally, ‘the Life of the Worlds,’ the key to eternality, i.e., the Torah]” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael 13:19).
What was so important that it fueled the redemption? What did we carry in those arks that redeemed us so? We carried:
Joseph. A symbol of innovation, of chutzpadik insistence on surviving and thriving, against all odds, left for dead, rising from the darkness of imprisonment to the highest levels of pre-eminence in a country not his own — all the while yearning for that homeland and that sense of family; and
The Ten Commandments (The Torah). The living, evolving guidelines on how to construct (and if need be, reconstruct) a society based on eternal values and traditions.
But stowed in the Ark of the Covenant were two other contents:
The shattered fragments of the first tablets. God asked Moses to gather up those broken tablets. We carry our brokenness with us, into the wilderness, and toward redemption ahead.
A sampling of the manna provided in the wilderness. God does not leave us hungry; we must remember that there are miracles that make our survival possible.
These four ingredients, perhaps, serve as an indicator for how (God-willing) we may emerge from our current travails:
We will carry our dead. The overwhelming sense of loss, and the inspiration of those who have come before us, will be a burden, worthy of its own aron;
We will rely on timeless guidelines and values. We may be navigating uncharted waters, but thanks to our timeless wisdom, we know when we’re on the right track;
We will mourn and recall our brokenness, when we failed, when we were vulnerable and unsure. That fragility, too, will inform our course; and
We will know and honor and recall the miracles and caregiving that brought us forth. The experts, the hard work, the risks taken by those on the front lines and those more unsung, the vaccines and other medications developed, the small stories of love and the grand gestures of sacrifice — we will carry them all.
I cannot know, any more than any of us, what is to come, and when we will see better times; indeed, our parshah reminds us that redemption is not a straight path (Exodus 13:18).
May we carry our lessons with honor, with compassion for one another, and with hope for better times, soon ahead. Shabbat Shalom.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is a rabbi at Adath Israel in Merion Station and immediate past co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.