This past Wednesday, Rep. Ayanna Pressley tweeted:
Behind each number is a name, a story, a life, and a community grieving deeply.
This week we begin the book of Numbers. The book begets its name and so begins with a census of the people, an accounting of all those who made it through the great Exodus; a generation that would ultimately die in the wilderness.
I spent some time this week sitting vigil, as volunteers recited the names of nearly 100,000 COVID-19 victims. The 24-hour marathon reading, called Naming The Lost, was organized by clergy and community activists. It was an effort to humanize COVID-19's death toll and give space for those of us surviving to grieve.
About the book of Numbers, the great scholar Avivah Zornberg notes, "The people are in fact counted twice, once at the beginning of the book and once toward the end (ch. 26). These two moments are thirty-eight years apart; and both, ironically, are in preparation for the imminent wars of conquest of the Land of Israel. Between these two moments, a whole generation dies. What separates the two moments of counting is a total shift in population" (Bewilderments, 4).
We too are in a moment of accounting. Doubly so. Naming the lives lost to COVID-19. Registering the living with the federal census. Wondering how much of a generation this pandemic will claim. Knowing neither number is value-neutral. Knowing the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx communities. Knowing these are the same communities disenfranchised from the census, and therefore government funding.
But there is another name for the book, Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of In-the-Wilderness, as Zornberg translates it, noting, "The wilderness is more than context; it provides the tone and tension of a narrative of dying." It can be hard for some of us to remember that behind our daily stresses of sheltering in place is a broader communal narrative of dying. A narrative of dying in a context that does not easily allow us to access the primary tools we have for grieving. Most notably, gathering in community.
I encourage you to find a way to make space to name your losses. Personally and collectively. And in this time, our tradition offers tools and practices for paying attention to grief. On Friday morning of next week, we'll celebrate Shavuot with a Torah service and Hallel, followed by Yizkor. Yizkor is a service of remembrance recited four times a year, on Yom Kippur and Yom Tov. Jewish tradition understands that our resilience depends on our ability to allow for grief.
I was ever inspired by this rendition of Psalm 23 and offer you my own:
As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
we are afraid. and we are grieving.
And yet, we remember, that we are not alone
For You are with us.
The trees and the sky, they comfort me.
Compassion is all that makes sense. For ourselves first. And then for others.
And I shall dwell in the House of the Holy One
Sheltering in place
For as long as is needed.
Like the generation of the wilderness, may we be guided by the warm light of fire and sheltered beneath a protective cloud. May we feed on miracles and receive spiritual sustenance directly from our Source. And may we merit to receive Torah to the fullest extent.
Wishing you a shabbat shalom,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.