This is the phrase I have heard more than any other over the past week or so.
As every business I have ever frequented sends emails to let customers know their new protocols with regards to COVID-19, each begins with these words: “In these uncertain times ... we will be sanitizing, we will deliver to your doorstep, we will maintain 6 feet of distance between people, we will be closing …” and so on.
The world as we’ve always known it seems to have come to a halt, and we lay in limbo, many of us at home, wondering what the future will hold as we figure out how to spend our days when our routines have been so utterly disrupted. What uncertain times, indeed.
As the Israelites wander through the midbar (the desert), they too are navigating their own uncertain time.
A liminal generation, between the escape from Egypt and the arrival to the promised land, they are neither here nor there. Instead, they seek to create order, routine and structure from the deep, deep wilderness. The rules have changed. Their authority has changed. They listen not only to Moses, their leader, but also to the God of their ancestors who is neither tangible nor visible.
And yet Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus, which we begin this week, details God and the Israelite people in a new and emerging relationship.
This week’s parsha is focused on the korbanot (sacrifices). “The priest shall turn the whole into smoke on the altar as a burnt offering, an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Eternal” (Lev 1:9).
The Israelites are learning how to transcend space. They are learning how to come close to One they cannot see. They are taking moral action: expiating their sins and addressing their guilt through the act of sacrificial burning, sending the smoke of their gift up toward a God they believe to be residing in the heavens above.
These uncertain times have been marked by our own sacrifices. We have sacrificed public gatherings, and comforting touches. We have sacrificed school, work, grocery shopping and in-person worship.
Your rabbis are sacrificing hospital visits and shiva minyanim and face-to-face meetings with wedding couples and conversion candidates. Singles are sacrificing dates. Children miss their friends. Teachers learn to teach in a room without students and doctors put their fear aside and their gloves on as they care for their patients one by one.
In these uncertain times, one thing has become clear: We too are learning how to transcend space. Through our korbanot, we have found other ways to likrav, to draw close. The two words share their root letters — kuf, resh, and bet/vet. It’s not a coincidence.
We have sacrificed our physical meetings, and drawn nearer to one another through text, through social media, through phone check-ins and notes left for our neighbors. Our children write happy messages in chalk on the sidewalks, sweet surprises for the many folks who walk by. Families spend hours taking long walks together. Dogs are happier than ever, spending whole days with their owners. Hikers, keeping proper social distance, greet one another with unusually warm smiles.
It is uncertain whether the goodness that has come out of this pandemic will continue when the danger has passed. Will the ways that we have drawn closer to one another through these sacrifices become our new way of life, or will they fade to memory? When the children return to school and the parents back to work, and we are no longer afraid of the shopping cart handles or the germ-covered doorknobs, will we still make time to check in with our neighbors and take long walks with our families?
The end of the story is still uncertain. When we are able to come face to face once again, may we not forget the closeness we shared in this midbar, as we transcended the distance between us. JN
Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is the associate rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel.