• Hanna Perlberger

Shavuot is Here - But Where Are We?

We're supposed to be at Har Sinai. But this year, in the era of Corona, it feels more like we're still in Egypt. Did we get lost? Or did we ever leave?

At the end of an on-line training workshop for relationship coaches, the person assigned to buddy up with me – Mohamed – offered that if I ever came to Egypt, he would be happy to “show me around.” Mohamed had impressed me as a gentle and kind soul, and so I offered my polite thanks. Although Mohamed was no doubt familiar with the Passover narrative of leaving Egypt, he probably never heard of “counting the Omer,” the 7-weeks between Passover and Shavuot, where we count every day and celebrate every step we took away from that smoldering corpse of a country as a stride towards a new spiritual reality.

Sorry, Mohamed – but I ain’t ever going back to Egypt.

Or am I?

First Things First

I’m experiencing a “first” this year, in that I am managing to achieve my goal of counting the Omer every night. (Here’s a little tip – I taped a piece of paper to my bathroom mirror that said “Omer,” and that saved me more than once.)

As noteworthy as this little accomplishment may or not be, it hasn’t inspired any new kind of spiritual awareness. While I’ve never really experienced the counting of the Omer as deeply meaningful, I’ve never felt, in contrast, so listless and empty.

Rather than approach Shavuot as the “Trek to Holiness,” as I’ve written about, I’m doing a lot of sitting and staring into space. Last Shabbat, I perched on my balcony and, for the better part of 3 hours, watched a vast swath of seaweed dip and sway with screaming slowness as it tediously inched the last 6 feet of its journey to break on the shoreline. That was a good day.

Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

After we all had to learn the rules of social distancing (a brand-new term that is now an accepted part of our daily language), the first order to shelter in place occurred a few weeks before Passover. A curfew was established, and except for dire circumstances, only essential workers were permitted on the roads.

This recalls the plague of “Choshech,” where the darkness was a tangible and impenetrable force that stopped the Egyptians in their tracks and held them in place - only now it applies to all of us. (This is where I would insert a sad-face emoji.)

Similarly, just as Egypt’s economy and food supplies were rapidly devasted, we have landed in a pan depression (is that a word?) without warning and time to adjust to the new value system. I actually bartered for some things I needed with coveted rolls of toilet paper.

And like the locusts, frogs, and lice of yore, we have a new infliction of pests – Murder Hornets. We’ve long had Killer Whales and Killer Bees – and for the most part, we don’t begrudge a wild thing doing what a wild thing’s gotta do. But word choice is specific. This is not a Killer Hornet; it’s a Murder Hornet. Murder is wrong. Murder is evil. It’s as this insect is outside of the normal realm of nature possessing a mens rea, a deliberate criminal intent.

It’s a sign, I think, of the fact that we feel so vulnerable and so at-risk, that anything and everything feels like a threat to our survival.

Then, of course, there’s the Angel of Death thing. Right, that.

Seriously, What’s Going On?

So, are we back in Egypt? Have we made some kind of galactic cosmic U-turn? Where are we? More importantly, who are we? And who were we back then?

Back in the day of leaving Egypt, Hashem didn’t just change our zip code. He had to transform a slave nation into a society of free-willed humans. In so doing, Hashem had to deprogram our mindset, our beliefs, and cultural conditioning to reprogram us little by little with the capacity to receive - and then live - according to the precepts of Torah.

For example, early on, Hashem instructed Moses on the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh (designating the New Moon), giving us, so to speak, one of the keys to the kingdom of time, a game-changer for a slave. I don’t know about you, but with each day a rinse and repeat of the day before, and morning, noon, and night one long shapeless blur, I have lost the sense of structure and time.

To free us from the slave mentality and a scarcity mindset, Hashem gave us the mitzvahs of tzedakah and bringing heart-inspired donations to build the Tabernacle in the desert. But it’s pretty hard to tithe your income when you don’t have any.

Throughout the Torah, Hashem instructs us on a radical way to live together - a covenantal society where we are responsible for each other, entrusting us to protect the most vulnerable of us. But our wealth has slipped through our fingers like sand, economic hopes for the future crumble like dust, and we went from giving gifts to needing them. We fill out the paperwork on-line for loan deferrals, unemployment benefits, and loans for small businesses and payroll protection. Still, instead of much-needed relief we get emails saying the system is overloaded, and to warn that chances are the money will run out before our applications are even processed!

But we wait and hope anyway – that the government will figure this crazy thing out, that the government will give us our allowance, that the government will feed us, heal us, protect and save us.

And if that doesn’t happen, then indeed it is the government’s fault. Either we raise our eyes in hope to the Pharaoh as savior, or we gnash our teeth and tear him down in every news and social media outlet, because, undoubtedly, a different Pharaoh would make it all better.

Once we thought we controlled everything, now we have to admit we control nothing. We have become like dependent children again. We have outsourced the solutions, and we wait for the White Knight to make good. We are back in Egypt.

But with one significant difference.

Our One Freedom Left

The Torah isn’t just an instruction manual for living; it’s the guide to becoming a bona fide free-willed, autonomous, productive, responsible, kind, creative, and godly human being – in other words, a grownup!

Be holy for I am holy. Sanctify My Name on earth. Be a light unto nations.

Besides having collective responsibility for each other, Hashem also tasked us to take personal responsibility for ourselves, to pursue good and to reveal holiness. We can’t outsource or delegate what we are here to do. We have to own it. Do it. Be it. Bring it. No one else can fulfill your mission for you. And that’s a very good thing.

Back in the USSR – You Don’t Know How Lucky You Are

It is said that the final Era of Redemption will parallel the miracles of the Exodus from Egypt, that the first Exodus paved the way for a future one. Unlike that historical event, this one will be the final Redemption that will bring about permanent transformation.

So, if we are indeed, back in some kind of Egypt, then perhaps we are exactly in the right place. Only this time, we don’t have to leave as a slave to be repurposed with the capacity for freedom. We are free now. Even as we shelter in place and can’t move.

In an interview, Anatoly Sharansky revealed a truth he realized while being held in Soviet Gulag for nine years: that they could imprison him, but not turn him into a prisoner, and even if he were to die while still in jail, he would die, nevertheless as a free man.

Is freedom just the reopening of our favorite restaurants, to walk carefree on the beach, and get our nails done? Like anyone, I don’t want a trip to the grocery store or going to shul to be a life-threatening event. But what do I want? What do I really want? Is this whole thing just another one of those damn plagues that inflicts the world every hundred years or so, and it just sucks that we are in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Or is something else? Slaves can do little, if nothing. Can we, as free people, however, tilt this world ever so slightly towards a better future and its ultimate destiny?

I end this article with no answers. But I do have hope. Just as Hashem has shown us once again that He can devastate the world, so can He redeem it.

In an instant.

We have over 3000 years of history and teaching under our belt. We are not a nation of slaves. We are free. Some of us are even grownups. I don’t know exactly where this journey leads. But I say keep on walking.

And don’t look back.

Thanks to Jean-Frederic Fortier for sharing his work on Unsplash.

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