“We want to thank the entire Emanu-El community for helping make Tillie’s zoom Bat Mitzvah such a wonderful celebration. At one point, 93 households were on the zoom feed! It was really meaningful to us to “see” you all there, listening and praying and singing along with us. We didn’t know what to expect when we planned a zoom Bat Mitzvah, we just knew there wasn’t another good alternative. The experience so exceeded our expectations; we really felt the love come through the feed, and are so grateful to be part of such a warm and supportive community.” The Stanger-Ross family!
Shabbat Shalom! Writing this drash has been quite the journey. I mean, at first glance (or maybe more like first 20 glances…) my Torah portion seems dreadfully boring. The Israelites are in the desert, and they decide to take a census.
Basically, it consists of a bunch of people being counted for page upon page. It goes like this; “Of the descendants of Naphtali, the registration of the clans of their ancestral house as listed by name, aged 20 years and over, all who were able to bear arms- those enrolled from the tribe of Naphtali: 53, 400”. And so on and so forth, for many pages. Not the most gripping thing you’ve ever heard, let’s face it. My job was to try to find the needle in the haystack, or to find some far fetched way to approach this text that turned straw into gold. Sorry, I’m just really enjoying playing around with sayings.
So, I got to work, searching for that needle, and going to the store and seeing if I can buy a spindle.
First, let’s understand why the Israelites are counting each other. They used to be slaves in Egypt, but now they are free and have been wandering around the desert for 2 years. They start counting everyone, they’re counting people to organize troops and build an army. But why did they need a huge army in the middle of the desert?
Let’s try putting ourselves in their shoes; we’re wandering around in the desert, free and alone. Probably feeling a bit exposed.
Furthermore, we’re escaped slaves. So we’ve been through a lot, we were slaves, living in really bad circumstances and not being treated well. Then we staged a revolt, which we know wasn’t pretty. We have all our possessions with us. And deserts aren’t the easiest place to live, we had other reasons to be afraid.
We were recently attacked by Amalek, some people from our tribe might have died. And even if you don’t believe that the Amalek actually existed, life in the desert still couldn’t have been a cup of tea. Huge sandstorms, lack of food and water, and probably other tribes who would have attacked us. So, the Israelites might have built a massive army to give themselves a sense of protection.
The Israelites weren’t only counting each other, they were also building arks and tents to worship in. After the count of people, my Torah portion includes a long list of everything they used to decorate their places of worship. Although overall this list was not practically interesting, there was something on it that caught my eye. Dolphin skin.
Strangely enough, in my Torah portion the Israelites use dolphin skin to decorate a sacred ark. It lay on top of some sort of prayer table as a cloth. In Jewish culture, Dolphin skin is believed to be very sacred. I don’t know exactly what the origins of this belief are, but some people even thought that dolphin skin came from unicorns. But, how does one have a dolphin skin after wandering around in the desert for 2 years? You might say, they could have been carrying it around since leaving Egypt ( I did my research, there are in fact dolphins in Egypt).
OK, fine, that might be legitimate logic, I for one do not know how long dried dolphin skin lasts. But just imagine you’re trying to escape slavery, and you know the Egyptian army will catch you if you’re not quick. You don’t even have time to let your bread rise, but you know what you do remember? Your dolphin skin. You say, “Oh honey, we mustn’t forget the dolphin skin!”
But, on the other hand, humans aren’t always the most rational thinkers in times of crisis. A rare item like dolphin skin might have been a prized possession for a slave family and would have been very hard to leave behind. Perhaps they figured that maybe they could sell it if worst came to worst.
When I was 9 years old, and my family was living in Rome for the year, we (and everyone else in our building) thought that our apartment building was on fire. There was smoke everywhere and the whole building was evacuated.
Don’t worry, everyone was fine.
When we evacuated, we grabbed some things to bring with us. I brought my favourite stuffy, not because I thought he would be particularly useful or anything, but because I couldn’t bring myself to leave him behind. In case you are wondering if this is just a 9-year-old thing (bringing a stuffy that is) it is known that my father also grabbed his “monkey monkey” to bring with us.
In times of crisis, I think that humans value things that comfort them, things that they are proud of, things that are important to them. Things that are connected to memories. The dolphin skin might have been a family heirloom, a source of pride. Something they couldn’t bear to part with. This rare item was designated to help decorate a holy ark.
My favourite thing about religion is the stories. One of the things I find interesting about my parshah, is we know it actually happened. It’s not one of those allegorical stories that might just be there to teach us something. Thousands of years ago, these people were actually in the desert, counting each other, and building structures to worship in. In fact, one of these Israelites might have been my great great great great great ( possibly a few more greats?) grandmother (or really Bubbie but for some reason great Bubbie doesn’t quite work).
Today, in a world that looks totally different from the one they lived in, we are still telling this story, in fact, we’re singing it in the language they spoke back then. That is one of the really interesting things about religion.
And even now, we can still connect their story to what is happening to us today, for their story then and our story right this moment are linked by one common factor, fear. My Torah portion is called parshat bamidbar, and bamidbar means in the wilderness. The Israelites were literally in a desert, the wilderness, completely exposed. But they were also in an emotional wilderness. They were free, but they didn’t have a place to call home. They were headed somewhere, but they might not have been entirely sure where. Everything was new to them, strange, wild. They didn’t always know what was going on.
I think similarly COVID 19 has put us all in the wilderness. Like the Israelites, this is new to us, strange, different. Like the Israelites we don’t know where we are headed, or if we are ever going to get there. We don’t know what to believe, who to listen too. We’re on our own kind of journey. Although we might not be going towards a place like the Israelites were, we’re headed to our own kind of ending. And what is really challenging about that is we do not know what that ending is going to look like. Right now, we are in our very own midbar.
It’s hard to know what to take from this. Do we take away that we will, like the Israelites, stay strong in our times of struggle and persevere? I mean, they wandered in the desert for forty years without ever sitting down like a toddler on a hike and refusing to go further. Or more importantly, if they did sit down they always got back up again. Do we take away the idea that we’re in our own midbar right now and we need to accept that and stay open to the changes we are faced with?
Or do we contemplate how nations have joined together in the face of fear and danger today, whereas in my Torah portion what brings them comfort is to separate and define their own nation?
I think that it is up for interpretation, but what I would take away from this is that in crises where societies are facing new and challenging situations, we need community, whether it is through counting everyone or talking with family over Zoom. Feeling that connection is really important to humans when we’re facing fear. And that’s what’s important about Judaism to me, that sense of community. It is what I love about synagogue, and my summer camp, Camp Miriam.
I think you can see the similarities between our response to fear today, and the Israelites’ response thousands of years ago. One of the main ways we’re coping today is staying connected with our friends and family, and with our community. We stay connected through texting and over zoom, and now as life restarts hopefully more in-person walks and whatnot. I think that the Israelites response to fear was to give themselves their own identity, and to bond as a community. They weren’t just escaped slaves anymore, they were “the Israelites”. And even if their way of bonding and coming together as a community might not be my favourite (building an army and uniting over a nation) I think that maybe they really were just trying to build that sense of community and safety. And I think that in any time of struggle, community is what makes us humans feel safe. I hope that all of you have been able to stay connected with your communities in these troubled times. And I hope we all are finding comfort in things that mean a lot to us, whether it’s a good book or dolphin skin.
Now I’m going to take some time to thank everyone who has helped me get here today. First I would like to thank my parents who have been with me every step of the way and always willing to help me, my sister Eva for helping so much with learning the tamim, going up for my first ashrei with me, and always being there when I forgot a tune, to my brother Avi, because it only seems fair to mention him as well, and for giving me good advice about taking breaks even if I didn’t always want it. I also want to thank my Bubbie Hildy, for willingly devoting some of her time to help me with my haftarah and musaf. And to everyone one else in my family, for always being there for me. I love all of you so much, I’m very lucky to have such a great and supportive family. And to all the teachers who have helped me, my bat mitzvah tutor Sam, Chanah for coordinating and organizing things, and to my Hebrew school teachers for many years; Leah Levi and Beatrice. And thanks to Gabbai Aaron, for always making everyone feel at home in the synagogue. And of course, I extend my thanks to our amazing Rabbi, Rabbi Harry. You have helped so much with my bat mitzvah, and recently making sure that everything worked out in spite of COVID-19 caused difficulties. I would like to thank Daniel Mate, for helping to LIVESTREAM today, and everyone else who helped with tech-related stuff. I would like to thank Susan for managing the zoom waiting room and Lorne for flipping the siddur pages, this wouldn’t have been possible without you. Last but not least, I would like to thank all of you who took time out of your day to be here today, whether it’s in person or over zoom. It means so much to me.