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Sermon - Parshat Chukas-Balak - 11 Tammuz 5780

The 38 Year Gap in the Desert: Transition Trauma”  Rabbi Kalmar


“Am I a bad person if…” are the types of questions that ER doctor Amita Sudhir has been getting from people recently.   People who want to get a haircut, go to the gym, see their parents or grandparents – things we used to just take for granted – are they ok to do?  Just because they are legal – doesn’t mean that they are smart, or healthy, or responsible or moral.


In an article in, The Risks We are Willing To Run - she talks about how she tries to figure out what we are all trying to figure out now – what can and should we be doing as far as going out and mixing at the time of Corona. 


As she says “Responsible people take risks all the time in the course of normal life. And as responsible people, both out of regard for ourselves and for others, we take steps to mitigate those risks. We drive, but wear seat belts; we bike to work, but wear helmets; we drink alcohol, but don’t get behind the wheel of a car right afterward; we have swimming pools in our yards, but have fences around them. So can we return to some semblance of normal, but do it without endangering ourselves or others?

These are questions that we are all asking ourselves.


I saw that Rabbi Josh Flug points out that in literature – there is a device called an Ellipsis – in which things are left out – but the reader is meant to guess or surmise something from what is left out.  This can be done with three dots like in this discussion of death from a James Joyce story – when talking about the death of a priest  “Did he…peacefully?” she asked.”  You are meant to understand that he died even though it is respectfully said.  An Ellipsis can also be used to skip a long period of time in which the reader is meant to fill in the blanks.   A chapter may end and the new one begins 5 years later.  In 2001: A Space Odyssey – there is an opening scene in which a caveman/apeman learns how to use a bone as a tool or weapon and then the scene skips to a spacecraft flying through space – to show the development of technology. 


According to the the Ibn Ezra – our parsha contains such an Ellipsis – and 38 years in the desert just pass without any mention.  He says that there is no story or prophecy or anything except in the first year of the time in the desert and the last year.  The Torah skips 38 years.  Nothing much really happened.  Collect Mann, eat Mann, Learn Torah, Watch Charlton Heston in the 10 Commandments on Netflix, go to bed.  Repeat.  For 38 years.

Asks the Netziv – why all of a sudden were there all these complaints and problems after 38 years of peace?  Why was it only the first year and the last year that things got bad?


Says the Netziv – these were times of transition.  And transitions are hard.  The first year – the people were adjusting from being slaves in Egypt – to being free people in the desert and traveling in tents and being around their families – ALL THE TIME.  (They may have thought to themselves – SLAVERY was better than this – at least I got to leave the house! Our kids have suddenly been feeling the same way about school and we have been feeling the same way about work.  I wish I could get out of here and just go do some work!)

In the last year of their time in the desert – it was also a time of transition – Miriam dies, Aharon dies, Moshe is going to die – and they are being prepared to wean themselves off of living a miraculous existence in the bubble of God’s protection – fire at night, cloud during the day – miraculous food from heaven – and now they are going to have to go to Israel and fight wars and plant crops and build schools and pay shul dues and yeshiva tuition and for sleepaway camp and oat shmurah matzah and they are going to have to live a real life existence.  And that’s a tough transition. 


I always said from the beginning that the going back was going to be hard.  It was hard at the beginning to go hide in our houses from the virus.  But in some ways that was easy – there was a universal response – we’re going to go inside and all hide out.  But now – we are coming back – back to shul, back to work, back to life – and figuring out what is safe and what is not and what we should be doing, what we can be doing, what we need to be doing, is challenging.  The numbers are spiking in the south and the west – and they are creeping up in Wisconsin too – wear a mask – when to wear a mask, when to get together with friends, with family.  What is safe and what is risky – what is worth the risk.  What is responsible and what is not for ourselves, for others.  These are questions we are all struggling with right now.  And there are no easy answers.  But I think that it is just important for us to realize that a reason we may be stressing now – is this transition. It is stressful.   And just knowing that – “Why am I so stressed?”  Will help us to be more aware – to understand our own stress and others – will helpfully help us to be able to take a step back and be calmer.  Knowing the source of a problem – even without a solution – helps us to deal with the situation better.     Keep Calm and Keep Safe.  Shabbos is coming. Wishing you a calm and pleasant one.

Wed, July 6 2022 7 Tammuz 5782