Forty Years of Quarantine

(Someone asked me today for a quick dvar Torah for Shavuot. So in case anyone else needs one, feel free to use this!)

This past Shabbat, we began reading Sefer Bemidbar, which we will continue to read for the next several weeks, long past Shavuot. The book of Bemidbar chronicles Bnei Yisrael’s wandering in the desert — when the book begins, they are in the second year after the exodus, still in Midbar Sinai. What should have been a quick journey from the Sinai desert to the holy land becomes, in the words of Avivah Zornberg, a “forty-year death march” — God punishes the people for the sin of the spies by making them wander until an entire generation dies out.

At the end of the book, in parshat Masei, we are given an account of all the places the Israelites wandered. Rashi asks why the Torah takes pains to record all the journeys of the Israelites, and offers a midrashic answer:

Rabbi Tanchuma interpreted: This is like a king whose son was sick so he took him to a distant place to heal him. On their way back, his father began to enumerate all the separate stages of the journey. He told him: Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache, etc. (Rashi on Bemidbar 33:1)

According to this account, the Midbar history is a history of sickness. This midrash makes me think that the Midbar experience is in some ways like our experience of Corona — a prolonged period of sickness, with the days seeming endless. There’s something nonsensical about it all — why should it take forty years to get from the Sinai Desert to Israel? And why should a tiny little virus that afflicted a man in Wuhan, China have overturned our world? If only the Israelites had listened Moshe instead of to the ten spies, this whole long journey of wandering could have been avoided. And if only we had acted sooner and listened to the scientists/epidemiologists who told us to wear masks and stay home, we could have avoided so many months of lockdown, economic uncertainty, etc.

The wilderness experience was a harsh one. There was not always enough water. The people were worried about whether they would have food. They doubted their leaders, and even spoke Lashon Hara about them. And through it all, people were dying. Corona, too, has been a terrible plague for all of humanity. The term quarantine comes from the Italian for “forty days,” which is reminiscent of the forty years of wandering in the desert. But quarantine is the least of it. One hundred thousand people have died of Corona in the US. We have suffered from economic instability, and too many people do not know where their next meal will come from. We have doubted our leadership, etc.

But we must remember, as we do every year on Shavuot, that it was in the Midbar that the Torah was given. The Midbar, where very little grows and all is sparse, is a humble place. And yet as the Torah tells us, Mimidbar Matana — from the Midbar, the people went on to Matana. These are place names, but the Talmud (Nedarim 55a) interprets them midrashically to teach that if a person makes himself like a wilderness, Torah is given to him as a gift, as a Matana.

May we merit on this Shavuot to be receptive to the gift of the Torah, and may we merit throughout this entire period of Corona wilderness wandering — in spite of all the sickness and the loss and the fear– to nonetheless be receptive to the possibility of transcendent gifts.

4 thoughts on “Forty Years of Quarantine

  1. Michael Scher says:

    Calling the wandering of the Jews for 40 years a “death march” like a Nazi extermination technique is deeply wrong on many levels. Why would you adopt this strange and ugly reference?
    It seems like a thoughtless attempt at humor but fails.
    It’s a mistake. Just remove this offensive confusing language from your shiur .


  2. Amy Koreen says:

    Can you please add my brother in law and my sister to your email list? Their addresses are shown above. Thanks, Amy Koreen.

    Sent from my iPad



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