In my house, we are constantly packing to go somewhere. Always. We pack endlessly. We pack in suitcases and toy boxes and blankets wrapped up with other blankets. Then we take the car to the airport and we go on a plane. Sometimes we fly to California. Sometimes to Puerto Rico. Sometimes we take the plane just to the store for groceries. We pack all the blankets in the house. All the shampoo. Every band-aid. Every stuffed friend. But not Tangy the orangutan. Sometimes, he just wants to stay home.
Now to be clear…we’ve been on lockdown in my house for 64 days. We’re not going anywhere. Our packing ends in unpacking and cleaning up the living room. Last night, our three-year-old played restaurant during dinner and she named the restaurant “Inside.” Because that’s where we go. Oh, but we want to travel. We crave nature and new places and faces. We want to set out somewhere. Begin a trip. See beautiful things. Explore and become and gain new understandings of our world and ourselves and all the wonderful things that happen on a journey. Instead, we eat at Inside every night. It’s the hottest restaurant next to the living room.
But our text is about to send us off on a journey and as a people, we are as ready to take that journey as we are ever going to be.
We read this week Parshat Behar Bechukotai, which is the very last chapters of the book of Leviticus. Leviticus is our packing list. The book that comes next—we call in English, Numbers, but in Hebrew, we call it Bamidbar, which means “in the wilderness.” We stand on this shabbat, just finishing our packing for the most defining journey of our lives. And next week, we will set off on our journey into the wilderness.
Reading Leviticus has been weeks and weeks of learning what to do and what not to do. How to be holy, how to act in the face of uncertainty, how to treat others who are sick or vulnerable. This week we even pack a map, told we could choose two directions on our path. We could go this way and follow God’s laws and so live a life of blessing. Or we can go the other way, and ignore God’s instruction, and live a broken life. We’re told to rest the land. Rest our bodies. Give respite to one another. Be fair. Go out of your way to be fair and just and good even when it’s inconvenient for you.
As we stand at the foot of Mount Sinai, antsy and utzy and ready to just get on our way already, we’re given endless things to pack, some of which probably don’t seem necessary or even relevant to this moment. But Torah makes sure we have with us what we will need to survive and thrive in the next chapter, that we are ready for the unexpected and that we will have the things we need to make the right choices when we come upon scenarios that, while we are packing, we can’t even yet imagine. Like the headlamp you throw into your backpack at the last minute before leaving for the airport which proves useful only when all the lights go out in an unknown city or you arrive at your campsite, unplanned, long after dark.
So in this last week of Leviticus, we are finally packed and ready to go, with the sense that once we are on the journey, all that we packed will become more relevant. Each item rolled into a shoe or in a mesh bag for safety will have its day.
In some ways, this is where we are now in Brooklyn and maybe in the country. The Governor is beginning to phase in limited openings of the state and over time, that may turn into the city as well. NYC is not opening now, but we are sensing a shift in the air and preparing for the next stage of this thing. We know it’ll be some time before we are praying together in the same space again.
We know this journey will be slow and hard and it will be long and have many many stopping points along the way where we reassess where we are headed and how fast our caravan can move.
But we have spent the last two months in the instruction phase, packing for what’s ahead of us. Learning as much of the science as we can, acquiring masks and gloves and figuring out the systems of ordering food. We’ve learned our new responsibilities to help our neighbors, how to help in new ways, and how to ask for help when we need it. We’ve seen what happens if we take the path where we don’t listen to experts and we’re doing all we can to choose the other path. We have learned about the importance of rest, paying attention to our mental health, finding reasons to laugh. We have learned about how to flatten the curve and how to handle the curve balls.
And now we stand between packing for our trip and being on our trip. On this journey, we will need to draw on all that we have learned in preparation; we will need to use every last thing that we’ve packed. Because even though we are starting with just the tiniest steps, some which may feel imperceptible to us…we are going to have to learn how to walk in new ways, navigate uncertain terrains. Be people and a people who are ready to be in the wilderness.
You may not even know it, but you have been packing and storing up new ideas and new Torah and new learnings—about yourself and about the world—over the past 60+ days. You have learned things about vulnerability and honesty. About fear and strength. You—we—have learned things about death and letting go and about time that is fleeting. About the unexpected and about our priorities. You have learned things about your resilience, your breaking points, your hopefulness and your needs. You’ve learned things about love and eternity and technology. You’ve learned things about you, about your faith, about your tears.
(At this point in the sermon this past Friday night, we continued into small Zoom break out groups to answer the following two questions. If you feel so moved, you might answer them for yourself, too.)
WHEN WE CAME BACK: Whatever you said… the wisdom you discovered you now have and the how you want to define your journey forward—Write it down. Feel free to put it in the chat and inspire us! but also write it down for yourself because the intention for our journey is also something we can pack—it helps keep us steady, forward moving, and grounded. Tuck it somewhere you’ll find it a month from now.
Ya know, when we finish a book of Torah, we say: Chazak chazak vnitchazek. Be strong, be strong, and we will strengthen one another. As we gather with us all that we need, may we be strong. As we take one small step forward into the unknown, may we be strong. As we find ourselves in this new wilderness, may we strengthen one another other and know that we are not alone—that we walk together, sharing our resources, our wisdom, and all that we have packed in preparation. Amen.