As I’m sitting writing this blog for the Torah portion, Parshat Bamidbar, I happen to glance out my window into my backyard. There’s a beautiful red cardinal pecking at my grass and behind it a black crow, also pecking. I can’t help but notice how close they are to each other when another bird appears nearby and then a blue jay…a squirrel walks in front of them. The squirrel is literally walking, not scurrying, not running, just walking. The birds don’t fly away. In fact, the cardinal is now hopping toward my kitchen window. A few weeks ago, I saw a rabbit on my porch next to my sliding door, looking in. It’s Spring and my family has taken pictures of a young coyote exploring our yard at a leisurely pace and every morning there are little rabbits playing and hopping. I am not exaggerating. I honestly expect some birds to fly over with Cinderella’s dress so the mice can complete the alterations…
I believe the animals think we’ve all disappeared. I don’t think they’re doing anything new, I think they hid all this from us. They don’t know I’m in here watching (by the way, they’re all still there, I just looked). I’ve been noticing the birds throughout this pandemic. Last week I asked my husband how birds view the land. Not physically how they see it, rather, what does it mean to them? Their natural domain is in the air and they nest in trees so they can be close to the sky but they look for food on the ground. Is the ground their unending buffet and do they view it that way? If so, then it is a dangerous buffet for them because we were always outside threatening them and they are exposed to predators from above when they eat (another squirrel just frolicked past). If that’s true, then eating has always been dangerous to birds, never the relaxed trip to the buffet we have always enjoyed. But now, the ground is their safe and leisurely place and we’re not allowed to go to buffets anymore.
All our reference points have changed.
I like to notice these things because reference points are the rudimentary pieces of problem solving. We tell our tiny kids that if they are ever lost, they should look for the person in the ‘helper’ uniform – the police, the firefighters, etc. We give them reference points to solve the dilemma. When my kids were little and still learning to get to a bathroom in time, I told them that if the house they’re in has mezuzahs, when they need a bathroom, look for the room without the mezuzah. We use reference points all the time. Every previous experience becomes a reference point from which to judge every future experience. It’s how we grow.
So, what happens when the reference points are gone? I most definitely have been noticing the birds the last few weeks. I think it’s because I have always loved Hitchcock films, so birds behaving strangely will definitely cause me to glance over my shoulder (just making sure they’re not collecting on a jungle gym behind me as I stare strikingly off camera).
And so, the movie The Birds, becomes my reference point and I love watching them as I remain indoors, incognito.
The reason reference points speak to us so strongly in Judaism is because in order to receive the Torah, we had to remove all the reference points we knew – we had to leave Egypt. We are taken from Egypt into the wilderness, the desert, Bamidbar, which literally means ‘in the desert’. The fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, is called ‘Wilderness’ in Hebrew. That’s not an insignificant difference because those two names are opposite points of view. The book is called Numbers because it starts with Moses taking a census of Israel, he is counting the nation. In fact, numbers are our greatest reference points. It starts with counting ten fingers and ten toes and lasts a whole lifetime as we fill the numbers of years we are each allotted. But Judaism teaches us that our lives and our worth must never be reduced to numbers and so the Hebrew does not reflect that reference point in the title. The Hebrew title presents the opposite point of view: the Wilderness. The name ‘Wilderness’ speaks of no reference points. The only defining feature of a desert is that it has no stable defining features. Israel must remove all familiar points of view to be open to the newness of Torah. Building the vision of a new world must happen without the constraints of the old.
Once we remove the familiar we cease to be shackled by it, allowing us to entertain new ideas. For this reason, the wilderness in Judaism is not a place where we are lost, it is a place where we can entertain everything as new and make new choices without the hindrance of the old familiarities. Bamidbar guides us away from what threatens us–Egypt– toward what can redeem us–Torah. It is hard to navigate without reference points since we crave them and feel scared without them. Covid 19 is still a threat to so many in the world but we know our doors must start opening. We watch new reference points start to appear as we struggle with personal space defining as not less than 2 meters. How can we build community? How do we celebrate together and how can we support those who must not venture out still and for the foreseeable future.
This week’s parshah, which starts the book of Bamidbar, settles us into thinking of the stability we can now create in the midst of shifting sands.