Are we waiting for the cloud to lift?
This Shabbat is many things, especially this year. It is the last day of Adar, the Hebrew month which contains Purim, and the beginnings of joyful celebrations. It also marks the beginning of the month of Nisan — the month in which we celebrate the holiday of Pessach, and the grand exodus from Egypt, and freedom for the Jewish people. It is also — March 13, 2021 — one year and one day since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, and the world began to shift in ways that we could neither imagine, nor comprehend. Even now, with the expanded lens of “a year later” — we still cannot comprehend much of what we have gone through. While last year at this time, everything began to shut down, now we are seeing hope, reopening, and the very bittersweet knowing that while some of us might be able to see family over the upcoming holidays, many of us have lost family and friends that we will never see again.
Last year at this time, the President of the United States said (I am paraphrasing), “we are going to have this beat by Easter — the churches will be open, and dinners will be shared.” While most of us were incredulous, all of us were secretly hoping for this to be true. This year, oddly, that statement has a modicum of possibility. Just last night, the new President of The United States encouraged us to listen to the new guidelines, to feel hopeful, to be together. It feels like the CDC is changing regulations on a daily basis, and young adults as young as 16 are getting inoculated. It all feels so — bizarre- honestly. Over the last week or so, my conversations with vaccinated friends have been not about whether we feel comfortable in each other’s homes, but actually about how to carefully, and meticulously make the incremental shifts to a new new old new normal without upsetting the delicate balance of our children’s mental health.
Our children, especially the very young ones who do not know life without masks, could find the transition to indoor playdates and maskless gatherings jarring — and scary. My 2 year old son, who has been in school, wants to cross the street when strangers get too close, saying “Oh no, Mommy! People!” Some of my students in elementary and middle school cannot fathom the idea that they could be safe — after a year of being told to mask up, sanitize, and stay away from each other.
This Shabbat also marks the reading of the very last chapter in the book of Exodus — the book of freedom, liberation, new beginnings. In Vayekhel-Pikudie — this double whammy, double parsha Shabbat, we read about the construction of the portable Tabernacle, the holy place for Gd to dwell while the Israelites travel in the desert, about the immense generosity of the Israelites in providing material for this building, and in the end, the dwelling of Gd’s presence amongst them.
As I read through the Parasha this week, I couldn’t help but notice the parallels between this story, and the story we have lived in the past year. The Israelites have emerged from the confines of slvary in Egypt, after witnessing the inexplicable miracles/plagues of Gd, and are now figuring out how to live as a self sufficient people. Part of the process, as Moses explains to them, is the building of the house where Gd lives — a place of hope, redemption, salvation, and mercy. Moses asks the people to give from their own resources — gold, silver, animals, linen, wood, labor, etc…in order to build this tabernacle — and the people oblige — so much so that Moses has to ask them to stop giving.
Stop giving! Can you imagine?
I am reminded in this part of the story of how much all of us, around the world, stepped up to help our neighbors, friends, family, and complete strangers during the past year. So much of the world spent months in darkness and lockdowns — and so much of the world is still there — and yet, as a humanity, we (for the most part) came alive. We reached out digitally, we sent food to essential workers, we figured out how to make masks and PPE, we took each other into an embrace of empathy — when physical embraces have become so alien — we set up neighborhood food pantries, collected donations, protested against injustice, collected funds, built houses, helped strangers bury their loved ones.
The headlines be what they may be, but as humanity, through our pain — we stepped up.
I recently heard a podcast where the speaker said, “those of us who made it to this side of the pandemic have serious work to do.” I found this statement uplifting, and also highly problematic. How could we so callously judge the 2.63 million (as of today) people who did not survive? I certainly can’t, and I know that their journeys were, and are a huge, meaningful part of this global shift. They mattered, and they matter. While we have been forced to halt life as we knew it, and lost so much — we have, most certainly, also gained.
And now, perhaps, Gd has covered the collective temple we have built over this past year 0 this temple of humanity — with a cloud. As it says in the very end of Parashat Pikudei:
“When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of GD filled the Tabernacle.Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of GD filled the Tabernacle.When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys;but if the cloud did not lift, they would not set out until such time as it did lift.”
וַיְכַ֥ל מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶת־הַמְּלָאכָֽה׃ (פ)
וַיְכַ֥ס הֶעָנָ֖ן אֶת־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וּכְב֣וֹד יְהוָ֔ה מָלֵ֖א אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן׃
וְלֹא־יָכֹ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה לָבוֹא֙ אֶל־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד כִּֽי־שָׁכַ֥ן עָלָ֖יו הֶעָנָ֑ן וּכְב֣וֹד יְהוָ֔ה מָלֵ֖א אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן׃
וּבְהֵעָל֤וֹת הֶֽעָנָן֙ מֵעַ֣ל הַמִּשְׁכָּ֔ן יִסְע֖וּ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל בְּכֹ֖ל מַסְעֵיהֶֽם׃
וְאִם־לֹ֥א יֵעָלֶ֖ה הֶעָנָ֑ן וְלֹ֣א יִסְע֔וּ עַד־י֖וֹם הֵעָלֹתֽוֹ׃
When the Israelites needed to regroup, rest, and figure out what the next journey would bring, the cloud settled upon the Tabernacle. Not even Moses could enter. I see this as a metaphor for where we are. We are in that moment right before the moment of lift, we are in the moment of waking up a minute before the alarm clock rings — the cloud is still among us, and we are still regrouping. Say what you will about the past year, and many of us have said many things- but one thing is clear: it has been a moment of great change, that has stripped us all down to our bare, raw, naked humanity. Were we generous? Were we fearful? Did we cultivate darkness, or did we continue to believe in the light?
When the cloud lifts, and Gd once again allows the Israelites to continue on their journey, they go on to become a great nation. Who will we be when this cloud lifts in our time? If we believe that many of us descend from the Israelites, we then believe that we are handed lessons, just as they were. Whether Gd, or large environmental factors, or happenstance is what settled upon us — we haven’t been able to enter the Tabernacle — not even those we entrust to lead us — to seek out answers. We haven’t been allowed to move yet, but as we close the book of Exodus, and the cloud does eventually lift — where will our journey take us next?
I propose that wherever we go, we remember how much we have gained.
Generosity. Humanity. Togetherness while apartness. Shared grief. Shared hope.