The first chapter of Numbers is called B’midbar and literally means “in the wilderness.” Since it is the first chapter in Numbers, it makes sense that this portion would focus on the accounting of people, tribes, etc. However, I was struck by the symbolism of what “being in the wilderness” can mean to us. Like everyone else, our lives under the pandemic have seemed a long slog through a wilderness of unknowns.
How long must we isolate? Will people I know get sick? Will they develop a vaccine? Will it be enough? The fear of the future or the unknown was brought front and center with COVID. We were all going about our mundane lives and then we are forced to grapple with a dangerous unknown on a daily, monthly, and now yearly basis.
Thankfully, a vaccine and boosters were developed by our amazing scientists (including work at Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem), but those were too late for the millions that have succumbed to COVID. Many of us lost friends and family. My father-in-law who was suffering with Parkinson’s just wasn’t strong enough to fight off the virus, even after vaccination. Yet, we continue to live and hope that such a devastating event as a pandemic will be an anomaly in our lives.
There is an old Yiddish saying, “Make plans, God laughs.” To me it means, no matter what you might think will happen tomorrow, next week, next year, there is no way to really predict the future. Since September 2020, I have been in individual and group therapy, trying to heal from betrayal trauma. For a long time, I was filled with a tumult of emotions. I would look back on the past with sadness and look forward to the future with trepidation. Sometimes I felt so overwhelmed with the most basic things, that it was difficult to even leave my bed, wandering as it were, around the wilderness of my own thoughts.
At one point, my therapist told me something that I try to remember when I am struggling. She said, “the future was never certain.” Even before COVID and then my own personal heartache, I could not know for certain what the future would bring. While I and others might feel uncertain about tomorrow, it was never set in stone.
There is something very freeing about focusing just on the present. You can fully embrace any situation in which you find yourself. Things like yoga, meditation, prayer and exercise are great ways to train your mind to focus only on the task at hand, instead of ruminating about what you cannot change (the past) or what you fear to come (the future). I took up rowing, returned to journaling, and reached out to friends and family for support. All those things are part of the practice of self-care, something that many moms put at the bottom of their to-do lists. But you need those things, especially when you are dealt difficulties in your life.
Self-care is not something you put off for “when you have time,” but an essential daily practice for your well-being. These things helped me find my bearings, not unlike a compass pointing north, when I was in desperate need of something to ground me and help me see that there was a way out of a very dark place.
Something else that was essential to my healing process was giving to others. As president of my synagogue’s sisterhood, I enlisted the support of my sisters by first letting them know my situation and then devoting myself to the activities we undertook to better our community. I wrote postcards to encourage people to vote; collected menstrual supplies for underserved populations and raised funds to support our Sunday school, among other endeavors. By taking the focus from myself, to what we could do for our community, I was given the gift of perspective, to see that my struggle, while difficult, could be overcome.
The Torah mentions our people wandering in the wilderness, only to become enlightened by the journey. Of course, this is very much one of those foundational tropes, that you must go on a long, difficult journey, face setbacks, get lost, but become wiser simply through the knowledge you gained of yourself and the world through that journey. Whether you become spiritually enlightened, or just are finally able to make tough decisions because you now have the knowledge and tools to do so, it matters not. The simple act of facing the unknown is part of the process. We all hope that good things will come in the future. And struggle is simply part of the act of living our human lives. No doubt, some will struggle more than others, but we all have challenges, some visible, some not, that we endure.
This reminds me of something we probably all have experienced as parents. We want to protect our children from pain and that often means, working to control circumstances that will keep them out of harm’s way. But do you remember being little and being told not to touch the oven or a hot pot, or the iron or….?
My point is that even though your parents may have warned you or actively tried to remove the danger, as children we would often still try to touch the thing because we needed the experience to understand. That we wouldn’t learn until we experienced it ourselves. We were trying to make sense of the world (for a child, an unknown wilderness). And each bit of knowledge gained, sometimes through painful experience, was added to the collective of our psyche to hopefully prepare us for the next unknown to come, and the next, and the next.
When I look back at my journal that I started in August 2020 after I learned the truth about my marriage, I am struck by how lost and utterly devastated I was at that time. Yet, I know today that I have grown immensely because of the knowledge and work that I have done to find and empower myself. It is a lifelong process (for those who choose to do it) but the rewards of continually becoming a better version of yourself as you forge a path through a forest of unknowns is worth it.
My wish for you all is that when you come to face your own wildernesses, your own future, you realize that this is part of your journey and that although you will have setbacks, you can embrace the opportunities to grow through those unknowns, knowing that you can’t control what is essentially unknowable. I was worth it, and so are you.