By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
Imagine the scene: Every family and individual huddled at home, hunkered down, commanded to do so, and painfully, terrifyingly aware of a mortal threat, above and around, outside.
Are we describing our current situation … or the night before liberation from slavery in Egypt, the night of the 10th plague, the Angel of Death? The timelessness of our Pesach story feels almost overwhelming in this difficult context.
Can we learn something from how that moment before redemption must have felt? For the ancient Israelites, beaten down by slavery and afraid of an unknown, unknowable God who promised “great, fearsome signs and wonders,” could they even imagine such a promise of freedom?
And can we, faced with indeterminate end points of the incredible sacrifices, the medical, financial and emotional tolls of uncertainty? Can we imagine the aftermath that will come, after this challenging, extraordinary time?
Our Torah reading for Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, the Intermediate Shabbat of Passover, seems an odd choice for the Passover story, but it asks this difficult question of us: While we are in the midst of a difficult time, can we imagine the aftermath, the time after?
In the Torah portion, Moses finds himself in the immediate aftermath of the calamitous moment of the Golden Calf. God and Moses, amidst the sublime moment of revelation on Mount Sinai, are interrupted by a violation of the very first law of the covenant, as the people worship an idol at the base of the mountain. The punishment is severe: The covenant is smashed — as symbolized by the broken tablets … there is vengeance, unrest, people are slain and, finally, there is a plague (Exodus 32:35). Moses pleads to see God, and God can only offer to be seen in God’s wake, in the aftermath of it all.
We might imagine that those who survived the tumultuous punishments of the Golden Calf might ask: What will become of us? What can come next, now that we have destroyed the covenant, the very foundational principles for sustaining our society? Just like the fearful moment huddled at home before the Exodus, just three or so months before, could the people see beyond their distress? Could we even imagine what might come, to extract us from this terrible moment?
And then, God instructs Moses: Go and pick up the pieces. Go gather the shattered tablets. Go rebuild. Reaffirm the foundational values of the society. Rebuild institutions, trust, togetherness, a tent of meeting, sacred gatherings and convocations.
Again, it may seem difficult to believe, as we find ourselves in the midst of this terrible COVID-19 crisis, as we hear words like indeterminate periods of isolation and quarantine, but eventually, there will be an end to this. There will be a yetziah — a going out from the sense of being confined, scared, constrained.
We may not be able to imagine it right now, but we will pick up the pieces, and we will rebuild. We will travel onward, together. And like the Israelites, who kept the sacred, shattered fragments of the first tablets in the ark alongside the reconstituted tablets, I pray that we carry those pieces — the lessons of this brokenness — as we journey forth.
Right now, in the midst of the pain, the vulnerability, the isolation, the loss, it seems unfathomable that there could be an aftermath. And the details of that aftermath feel unimaginable: How much loss will we suffer — loss of life, of livelihood, of business, of Jewish institutions and other societal supports?
There is an unknown wilderness ahead — the aftermath seems uncertain — but there is an aftermath; in this ani ma’amin, I believe. This, we must believe. Jewish history teaches us that just before every redemption and rebuild lies a moment of fear and uncertainty.
If so, then it is true in the opposite direction, as well: Moments of fear and uncertainty come before moments of redemption and repair. God willing, the brokenness we now feel will engender greater love and trust to carry us forward, into the wilderness and, ultimately, to our promise ahead. l
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is the rabbi at Adath Israel in Merion Station. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia 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.