We read the Torah all the way through each year. Genesis, then Exodus, the tale of escape from slavery. Then we break into the book of Leviticus – an interlude of legal codes to share rules of ethics and sacrifices. Now, we return back to the narrative. And we see that after the tale of our exodus from the trials and tribulations of life in Egypt, we enter the book of Numbers. Curiously, the name for the book is Bamidbar—in the desert.
We learn that just because a person casts of the chains of oppression, does not mean life is smooth sailing from then on. The path is often hard, until it isn’t. And we don’t always know what terrain lays ahead beyond the next hill.
The book of Bamidbar, begins with a count of those prepared to fight. Why would it begin this way? Because though the Israelites made it out of Egypt, we see that we are not yet out of the proverbial woods—or literal desert—yet. There is still scarcity of food, supplies, and water. Mauraders and bandits still lurk. We realize that we are still vulnerable because, well, we are human.
Today, we know that just because the numbers of COVID-19 deaths are beginning to fall in some places, it doesn’t mean that it will be completely safe to engage in whatever activities we want, moving forwards. The virus is by no means contained, and we still have a serious responsibility to be responsible in our activities.
This week, I learned that my high school friend, Ari Grossman, died. A life cut short at just 42 years old. And that drove home the point even further—the grip of the Coronavirus on the world may be loosening, but it is still a formidable foe. And good people are still dying. We are not out of the woods yet.
Fortunately, some community leaders are still urging the public to use caution. The city of Los Angeles has issued an order that though parks and some stores are starting to open, all residents are required to wear face masks in public at all times. Major Jewish organizations like the Orthodox Union and others have issued statements recognizing that though governmental law may open up meeting places, we, as Jews, still have a moral and ethical responsibility to preserve life in every way possible—and therefore, congregations will remain closed until it is safe for them to be open. The value of saving a life, pikuach nefesh, is the highest value we have to uphold; all others yield to that mitzvah.
For those of us in high-risk populations, this caution is critical. Better to be overprotective than leave us vulnerable when life is at stake. The Sages tell us that to preserve a life is to preserve an entire universe. Each one of us is infinitely precious. So, while we are making our way towards the promised land, we still have some ground to cover.
The above is a reflection by Rabbi Heather Miller on this week's Torah portion, Parashat Bamidbar,Numbers 1:1-4:20. Please visit rabbiheathermiller.com to subscribe and follow on social media.