By Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen
We are living through challenging times, times that can feel like a wilderness in which we truly do not know where to go or even where we currently stand. Throughout the months of staying home into these months of tentative reopening, I have often wondered what we will say about this time a decade from now. What will our children and grandchildren have learned, and will this time be one that leads to growth and evolution or to dissolution and despair?
In the second parshah of the double portion Matot-Masei, we read about our people’s original wilderness period. Nearing the end of their wanderings, “Moses recorded the starting points of their various journeys as directed by God. Their journeys, by starting points were as follows.” Many commentators notice the grammatical structure of the verse in which starting points are mentioned first, then journeys, but in the second part of the verse, the order is reversed — journeys and then starting points.
The 16th century scholar, Sforno, explains that this syntax gives insight into the experience of being in a time of uncertainty. “One of the most vexing aspects of all these journeys was that the new objective had never been announced beforehand, so that the people were always in the dark about what the next day would bring. … The reason that both the breaking of camp and the making of camp are mentioned separately is because both entailed a considerable amount of discomfort.”
The Or HaChaim says Moses was taking notes at each stage of the journey. It was at the near conclusion of the uncertain period that God commanded him to write it all down.
Perhaps Moses was taking notes precisely because of the insecurity he knew the community would experience. While Sforno notes their willingness to uproot and follow God’s lead, we also have many instances in Torah’s narrative of their fear, doubt, and despair. Moses’ notes offer insight into the people’s uncertainty.
The American author, Rebecca Solnit, writes, “Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. … Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.”
Our tradition holds that the journey through the wilderness was one of our people’s most important moments of growth and development. Despite a total lack of certainty, or maybe because of it, the people found spaciousness and room to act. I hope we will find ways to embrace the uncertainty of today as well. Won’t it be fascinating in a decade or two to read the notes we’re taking now?
Rabbi Elissa Sachs-Kohen is a rabbi at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation.