COMMENTARY: Lessons From 40 Years in the Desert to Get Through the Pandemic
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As the COVID pandemic continues, we've become used to seeing tents set up outside restaurants and bars so they can meet social distancing requirements and stay in business.
If you live in an area with a large Jewish population, this time of year you'll see another kind of temporary structure being built to celebrate the seven-day holiday of Sukkot (also called the Feast of Tabernacles). Jewish families build these temporary booths or shelters in their yards to symbolize the dwellings that the Israelites built during their 40 years of wandering in the desert after their escape from Egypt.
When the Israelites set out on their journey to the Promised Land, they must have experienced the thrill of liberation. Certainly, they hoped that their journey would be swift and easy. But the Bible tells us, "When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter" ( ). No – God prescribes their route, and it is not the quickest and easiest way through the wilderness.
In the desert, the Israelites were exposed and vulnerable to the elements. They went hungry and feared they would starve. But God provided, and though the journey was filled with untold hardship, they eventually reached their destination.
This is the message of Sukkot. We may find ourselves in the wilderness and despair of ever finding a way out. But if we keep our eyes fixed on the heavens and trust in God rather than trusting solely in our own devices, He will lead us through.
It's easy to see how we might come to believe that we are entirely self-sufficient. Our modern way of life can give us a false sense of security. Today, more of us have easy and affordable access to good medical care. We have immediate access to clean water and our grocery stores are well-stocked with all kinds of food. We have entertainment – movies, television, music – to fit any taste. The internet has put a world of information at our fingertips in a way that we couldn't have dreamed of 30 years ago.
But the coronavirus crisis has taught us a hard lesson. Restaurants and shops closed because of the lockdown, some of them never to reopen again. Certain items became hard to find in our grocery stores. The technology we surround ourselves with amused and distracted us for a time, but we painfully feel the loss of one-on-one human contact, because we are social creatures. As these things have fallen away, we understand that after our human creations fail, God remains.
In the eighth chapter of the biblical book of Nehemiah, we find the Israelites observing the Feast of Tabernacles – Sukkot – after returning to the Holy Land from another lengthy exile, this time in Babylon. "The whole company that had returned from exile built temporary shelters and lived in them," verse 17 reads. "From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great."
All of us, who live with such abundance but are now experiencing scarcity in a way that we never dreamed of, can learn from the Israelites. In their time of scarcity, uncertainty, and anxiety about the future, they trusted in God, the true source of abundance. As Jews around the world celebrate Sukkot, let us remember the fragility of all our own creation, and discover the eternal reality of God. Perhaps we will find that then, whatever we face, our joy will be very great.
Yael Eckstein is the president of the International Fellowship of Christian and Jews. As President of The Fellowship, she also holds the rare distinction of being a woman leading one of the world's largest, religious not-for-profit organizations, having raised $1.8 billion — mostly from Christians — to assist Israel and the Jewish people. She is the author of the newly released "Generation to Generation: Passing on a Legacy of Faith to our Children."
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