I've been wanting to get this down for weeks.... I’ve been very affected since March by Torah time – by how the cycle of reading the Torah in synagogue has mapped onto our experience of the pandemic since its one-year anniversary.
The first anniversary of the formal declaration of the pandemic and the massive shut-downs coincided with Jews’ reading the end of the book of Exodus and the start of the book of Leviticus. The Torah itself says that one year passed between the instructions Moshe received for the night of the Exodus, and the final assembly of the mishkan, the desert Sanctuary that would be a focal point for the Divine Presence. During that year in the Torah there had been war and thirst, a complete reorientation of the food distribution system to adjust to (i.e. manna), the new laws and covenant at Mt. Sinai, the in-fighting around the Golden Calf. Then finally a process of calming and reconciliation, and a collective project of building the “tabernacle.” Everyone gave something unique, with its own texture or color, from their life of that year – to be repurposed into a symbol of their unity. When the mishkan was finally assembled, the Divine Presence visibly infused it, with the cloud and fire that was going to lead the people ahead toward their new land and their new life.
That was what we read more or less on the first anniversary of the shut-down, as we were entering a new phase too – the ramping up of Covid-19 vaccination. I expected a turn toward dealing with the new ethical challenges of moving forward, the project of reconnecting and rebuilding a reality better than the one pre-pandemic.
But Leviticus opens with a cloud around the mishkan, and Moshe himself hesitating to approach it to hear these kinds of teachings. The cloud and fire do not in fact move forward. Something is not – was not ready.
Leviticus, the book that was the backdrop of our spring, is not actually a book of moving forward in the desert. And it’s not directly a book of society and ethical teaching, at least not for the first eighty percent or so. Leviticus does open with travel – but it does open with movement. It’s the motion of individuals coming one by one mostly, in a process the Torah calls korban or coming-closer, with offerings. People coming in closer, walking into the center, toward the cloud, with their offerings. Toward the cloudy place, with offerings occasioned by basic emotions – wellbeing, gratitude, guilt. Getting out and coming toward, to eat a sacred meal with a Kohen, to cleanse themselves of something, to burn up something completely and leave it behind.
Something got my attention in March, when I looked at the Torah and realized that it was telling me not to expect people to be ready to plunge ahead. Especially I shouldn’t expect people to be ready to engage in discussion about ethics and society fully just yet.
For a while, the Torah says n Leviticus, moving is just getting used to back and forth. It’s not one direction, from alone to together, from isolated to the Divine. It’s back and forth. Leviticus doesn’t command offerings from everyone on the same schedule. Yes, there’s some paying attention to right and wrong, sometimes you have to bring something in because of that. But mostly, we’re guided by ourselves, we know when to try moving. Closer and back out. The cloud and the fire are in the center and draw our eyes even when we’re still alone, to help us remember that there is something common even on the days we don’t bring anything. Do it like this for a while, move in your own directions, says the Torah for eighteen chapters, and then we’ll get back to ethics, and then we’ll try moving on together.
The commentaries on the opening verse of Leviticus focus on the last letter of its first word Vayikra. In the Torah scroll, the last letter alef is written as a small superscript. That alef has two dimensions. Its presence or absence changes the word from calling to happenstance. The letter alef signifies ani or anochi, “I” – which can stand for the ego in a strong sense or the Divine, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” Leviticus opens with a cloud around the tabernacle and a spiritual teetering between calling and being just tossed around, between a sense of our own “I” and not having it. Reclaiming what “I” feel like, who “I” am, is what a lot of us were doing as the pandemic hit its first year and we contemplated the next phase ahead. We were, and surely still are, disoriented. Leviticus gives that spiritual state a name and a picture and a pacing.
That was most of Leviticus, and it turned out to be not just accurate but for me soothing.
By the time the book of Leviticus turned to its code of ethics in chapter 19, and its social vision in chapter 25, things had in fact changed around us quite profoundly. The accelerating progress of vaccination in many places led just at this time to the CDC’s revision of its mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people. It was time to open the book of Numbers – the book of the march forward, the organization of people toward the battle for the new land, and the conflicts and delays along the way. But at least it’s the book of moving together, even if together is starting and stopping, and quarreling among ourselves.
Leviticus and Numbers share the perception that not everyone is spiritually ready to move in the same direction at the same time. But at some point, there is something you could call movement of the group, catalyzed by leaders or critical mass. Numbers acknowledges that deciding to move is hardly all there is. You’ve got plenty of opportunities to grind to a halt. In the Torah, these include questioning leaders and their motivations; people getting focused on immediate ease vs. longer-term goals; issues of justice and inclusion; people defining the end of the road in different ways. This last particularly struck me when we read about the tribes of Reuven and Gad who wanted not to go all the way to the new land with the other tribes, but settle where they were. To declare the journey and the fight were over. They and Moshe had it out, and eventually figured out a way for the tribes to work on setting up the common future together, even though tribe by tribe they would separate and live differently both economically and culturally. We should be so fortunate. In Numbers, some 38 years pass and if you read the book you can’t see where they went.
That’s more or less where we got in the Torah by early/mid-July. Now it’s time for Deuteronomy. What’s coming is preparation for the new year – the Jewish new year which starts this year in early September, as does the new school year. The new Torah year starts a few weeks later. Deuteronomy is about getting to the cusp of the new land, the future. It is a book of review of the teachings, going over them for the first time in a long time. At long last, Moshe gets to focus on the ethics and laws and teachings. He gets to talk about them, and also to remind people to continue to learn and study and talk about them from the moment they enter the new land. The time for putting that off – for delaying our ethical conversations, or pushing them to the side or to a small group of interested people – we’re being asked to consider that time over. To be fully human, ready to live, is also to be accountable ethically and intellectually and spiritually. That is what the Jewish new year is all about, and the intellectual explorations in Deuteronomy coincide in the Jewish year with weeks of spiritual introspection. And since this is hard any year, and especially this year, the rabbis of our tradition long ago paired Deuteronomy with (Second) Isaiah, with words of comfort and encouragement, with a welcome of people back to the Divine, back from exile toward home and each other.
I’m waiting to see how Deuteronomy maps onto the end of the summer. But I wanted to get this spiritual journal of the Torah cycle down now, because I am so grateful I had the Torah in this way these past few months. I’ve had more than the Torah’s specific teachings, each verse or each week – I’ve had this structure. It has helped pace me, and see the moment I’m in and some weeks ahead. I have always paid attention to the seasonal flow of the Torah readings, but this year I have seen in the Torah’s pacing through the desert so much I hadn’t seen before. I am grateful, and hope I’ll be attentive to the same things in the weeks and months ahead.