May 25, 2024
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May 25, 2024
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The Déjà Vu of Rivers: Starting a New Year With COVID-19

Twenty-five hundred years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus argued that no person “can step in the same river twice” because the river is always changing, always flowing. I believe that the Torah presents a similar but significantly more nuanced observation with a critical difference. Parshas Vayeilech begins with Moshe telling the Jews that Hashem had told him, “You shall not cross the Yarden (Jordan) River [into Eretz Yisrael].”

Except that’s not exactly what the Torah says.

The Torah actually says “haYarden hazeh, this Yarden.” Interestingly, “Yarden” is one of the only proper nouns in Tanach that is modified by the word “this”; whenever a historic crossing is referenced, the word “zeh” is invoked. When Yaakov returns from Charan, he recounts how he miraculously crossed “this Yarden” with only his stick.1 Generations later, Hashem instructs Yehoshua to lead the Jews into Eretz Yisrael by crossing “this Yarden.” 2 Why does the Torah always add the word “this” to the Yarden?

The Torah seems to be “correcting” Heraclitus. You can’t step in the same water twice, but you can step in the same river twice. It might be different Yarden water, but it’s still the same Yarden River. Despite the new water, it’s still this Jordan River. The same river that Yaakov, Moshe and Yehoshua all encountered on their journeys.

The Tzemach Tzedek wrote3 that just as the Jordan River is the physical boundary between Chutz La’aretz (Diaspora) and Israel, it also represents the boundary between humanity and the promised land of spiritual achievement.

This boundary isn’t stationary. A person’s spiritual horizon is always moving. When we’re striving to reach a certain spiritual goal, it becomes our Eretz Yisrael. It takes a tremendous amount of effort to overcome the trials and hurdles of the Yarden in order to reach it. But once we get there, we’ve grown. What was once an ideal and aspiration is now the status quo, and we can now grow to reach another, even greater achievement. There’s a new Eretz Yisrael to reach with its very own Yarden to cross.

A person might think that this new Yarden is a completely new hurdle, a never-before-seen set of challenges. And on the surface, there’s a great deal of truth to that. The challenges of navigating a green and double black diamond ski trail are very different; there are trees, ditches, hills and all sorts of obstacles that a beginner has never seen before! But in reality, those differences, while genuine, are superficial. Many of the fundamental skills and techniques remain the same; it’s only the details that have changed. Deep down it’s still the same river moments, years and even generations later.

That’s why the Yarden River is prefaced by the word “zeh”; as the threshold to the Promised Land of spiritual achievement, it’s constantly changing. As we grow and our aspirations change, so do the challenges and opportunities we encounter. And when faced with rushing current of a superficially unfamiliar Yarden, a person can lose heart and wonder how Hashem possibly expects us to succeed at something we’ve never encountered before. To that the Torah encourages us, “haYarden hazeh.” Deep down it’s still the same river!

We believe that Hashem brought us each down into the world for a specific purpose that only we are able to accomplish.4 And if that’s true, then everything we’ve ever done and faced in our lives has prepared us for this new Yarden. Thus, Hashem reminds us that there’s no need to fear because we have the tools to cross the river; we crossed the same river yesterday!

But is that really true? It certainly doesn’t always seem that way.

These past six months feel utterly unprecedented. When was the last time that we had to contend with a pandemic of such scale and virility?! The devastating effects of COVID-19 have impacted every aspect of our individual lives, families and communities. Hundreds of thousands of loved ones, many in otherwise perfect health, succumbed in a matter of weeks or days, leaving behind grieving families and unfillable voids.

How many of us can recall a time when the world came to an abrupt halt?! Businesses and shuls, simchas and schools—all closed, with some never to reopen again. How many lives have been upended, families thrown into turmoil, reeling from loss, stress and economic uncertainty? It feels like a totally different river! How can I possibly be expected to know how to cross it? How can Hashem tell me as he told the Jews by Yehoshua, ta’avor es haYarden hazeh?!

The answer, I believe, is that someone else has already crossed this Yarden.

We don’t exist in a vacuum. We are part of klal Yisrael—a multi-generational community and people. Unfortunately, we are not the first generation of Jews to contend with widespread death, disease and economic hardship. Even if we’re facing something totally unfamiliar, perhaps our parents, or grandparents or someone within our generations of history and heritage was faced with a similar challenge, and, through their perseverance, fortitude and faith, passed down the keys to success to us. 5

Perhaps something else: Even if I personally may never have experienced something like this before, maybe the person sitting next to me in shul—6- to 8-feet apart with a mask—has. Maybe they just went through the same hardship that I’m going through right now.

Or maybe, just maybe, the person sitting next to me is facing something totally unprecedented for them, but it’s something which I’ve already gone through. I know how it feels, and I have the experience and the tools to help them navigate the challenging times that lie ahead or to reach out and help shoulder their emotional burden.

The word shanah, year, is related to the word shinuy—change. But it’s also related to the word mishneh—to repeat. As the old year comes to a close and a new one begins, many things will change. New opportunities and new challenges—each with their own Yardens to cross. But the important thing to remember is that deep down it’s still the same Yarden. Whether it be our own life experience, the national memory and mesorah (tradition) of klal Yisrael, or simply our neighbor across the street, we have bitachon (faith) that Hashem has prepared us for what comes our way as we cross into next year.

May we all merit a kesiva vchasima tova, a year of health, happiness and aliyah (growth) as we im yirtzeh Hashem (with God’s help) cross the Yarden together into the spiritual Eretz Yisrael of growth, and the physical Eretz Yisrael with the coming of Moshiach speedily in our days.

Tzvi Benoff, of Bergenfield, is a student at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and a member of the rabbinical staff at Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City.

1 Genesis 32:11

2 Joshua 1:2

3 Sefer Halikkutim: Ma’areches Yarden

4 See Sefas Emes Korach 5647

5 Indeed, the Jews would return to the site where the Jews crossed the Yarden and where they camped thereafter. To that end, the Jews built monuments there with stones from the river. It would seem then, that Jews wanted to create an “eternal memorial” (Joshua 4:7) to an event and location that would be constantly changing. (See Joshua 4)

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