During the COVID-19 crisis, many people have remarked on the way that time seems to be moving both more slowly and more quickly than usual.
During this “stay at home” time, we can feel that the days just melt into one another and that time is zipping along at a faster pace than usual. Simultaneously, the constant waiting and hoping for a return to “normal” has us feeling that time has come to a standstill. We are trapped in a time warp in which our perception of time is distorted at both ends.
This week’s double Torah portion (Chukat-Balak) has a hidden message about how we perceive time and how, if we are not paying attention, the long years can rush past us and leave us unprepared for new challenges.
This week’s portion begins with the inexplicable laws of the Red Heifer and passes quickly to the story of the Israelites in the wilderness of Tzin, again grumbling about not having enough water. The transition from one section to the other goes like this: “The entire Israelite community came to the wilderness of Tzin in the first month …” (Numbers 20:1). However, the seemingly simple transition hides a secret. The time it takes to get to the “first month” is not a matter of days or weeks. It is actually 38 years that pass by without comment.
How do we know that the story of the Israelites’ grumbling about water happened 38 years after the laws of the Red Heifer? You can discover this only by looking back to the beginning of the Book of Numbers and by peeking ahead to the end.
Numbers begins by telling us that it had been two years since the Israelites left Egypt. All of the stories prior to the Red Heifer in Numbers took place during that year. However, in the book’s final portion (Mas’ei), we read a list of all the places where the Israelites camped during their 40 years of wandering. There we see (in Numbers 33:36-37) that the wilderness of Tzin was the penultimate stop on their journey, before coming to the edge of the frontier with the land of Israel, 40 years after leaving Egypt. In the blink of an eye, 38 years passed.
This passage of time helps to explain what happened in Tzin. For the second time during the Israelites’ journey, Moses responded to the people’s complaints about not having enough water. In the first instance (Exodus 17:1-7), 38 years earlier, Moses had followed God’s instructions to strike the rock to cause water to flow to slake the Israelites’ thirst. In the second instance, God told Moses to “speak to the rock” to make the water flow. The text tells us, however, that Moses ignored God’s instructions. He called the Israelites “rebels” and, instead of speaking to the rock, “he raised his hand and struck the rock twice” to produce the water.
What happened? Did Moses remember the long-ago success of hitting the rock and fall back on a familiar action to produce the desired result? After 40 years of leading the Israelites through the wilderness, had Moses come to believe that he didn’t need God’s instructions anymore and could just rely on his previous experiences? Was Moses, in his old age, just confused about what to do, and followed an old and familiar action?
We can’t be sure why Moses lost patience with the Israelites and decided to strike the rock instead of following God’s instructions to speak to it. It does seem, though, that God was not pleased with Moses’ choice. God tells Moses that, because of what he did at Tzin, “You shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 19:12).
Thirty-eight years is either a very short time or a very long time. It is short enough for Moses to believe that what worked before will work again nearly four decades later. It is short enough that it passes in the time it takes to pause between two verses. But 38 years is also long enough for Moses to forget that God – not Moses himself and his experience – is the source of his wisdom and authority. Thirty-eight years is long enough to grow weary, and unkind to the people he had devoted his life to serving. Thirty-eight years may have been long enough to convince Moses that he knew it all, when, in truth, he seems to have forgotten it all in one moment.
We may not notice the changes that can happen in us as we grow older, but those changes can take us along wrong paths and undo us. That’s not an indictment against Moses or against us. It’s just part of what happens in our short, temporary lives. We cannot stay forever energetic, optimistic and hopeful. Eventually – seemingly in the blink of an eye – we can grow dependent on our old tricks, cynical about the changes in the world around us, and pessimistic about the future. Maybe that’s part of what happened to Moses.
Life is short. Moses took note of this when he wrote in Psalm 90, “At daybreak, [people] are like grass that renews itself … but by dusk, it withers up and dies.” And the psalm says that our lives “pass by speedily and we are in darkness” – life can pass us by.
But the psalm also reminds us that, despite our tendency to lose track of time, we can find hope and meaning even as we age. Moses wrote, “Yes, teach us to count our days, that we may obtain a heart of wisdom” (Psalms 90:12).
We never lose the opportunity to gain wisdom if we have a heart to do so. If we keep our attention on that which is eternal, and not focused on our own imperfect and brief experience, we can continue to grow wise as we grow old.
And that, I believe, is also a lesson for us as we sit in our homes experiencing the paradox of days that are so short and months that are so long. Instead of focusing on our boredom or on our impatience and fear, we can use this time to renew our focus on our most foundational values – caring for people, connecting with family, creating justice in the face of oppression, learning from our tradition. That is how we can make this a time for saying “yes” to counting our days.
RABBI JEFFREY GOLDWASSER is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai, in Cranston. This essay is adapted from an entry in his blog, at www.rebjeff.com.