By Jory Hanselman
This past Shabbat, we read Parshat BaMidbar, the first Torah portion of the book of BaMidbar. BaMidbar means in the wilderness, and at BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, we know our time in the wilderness is a journey, and that journey is all about process. When we’re in the wilderness, we’re in a new position and environment that challenges our routines. In this environment, we combat and question our patterns, habits, and deep seated personal narratives. We practice setting goals and achieving them. We track our progress, and acknowledge daily our struggles and our successes. Even when things are hard, we empower ourselves with the knowledge that we can climb seemingly insurmountable mountains. We do this so that when we eventually emerge from the wilderness, we know we can still be the person we found there, and that we have the skills to climb the mountains – both beautiful and fear-inspiring – that life puts in our path.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reflects that the book we just concluded, Shemot – Exodus – is in many ways similar to the book of BaMidbar – Numbers. Both books involve journeys in the wilderness, in both books the Israelites complain about food and water, fight with each other, and commit major sins. But Shemot is a “journey from” while BaMidbar is a “journey to.” One might think the journey to freedom is more celebratory than the journey from slavery, but the book of BaMidbar on the whole is dark. “The journey from is always easier than the journey to,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks comments.
Last Wednesday, BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy announced the cancellation of our summer programs. Camps across the country are announcing cancellations, and as many of us enter our 11th+ week sheltering in place, we are beginning to accept that this global pandemic is not going away. I know I feel like we’ve crossed a threshold as a community; decisions are being made or have been made. We are beginning to accept that our future will look radically different than we expected, even three short months ago. But now, we need to chart a path forward. We are no longer on a journey from; now, we are on our journey to.
Biologically, we are built to flee from danger. Our sympathetic nervous system activates and our body floods with hormones. We respond before our mind processes what has happened. Adjusting to a new reality, getting over our first fight, flight, or freeze response and realizing we can’t go back to where we were before – that journey demands something more of us. Our initial jolt of adrenaline is gone, and now we need to find new reserves of strength, process the experience, and determine our path forward. It’s new, it’s scary, it’s unknown, and it’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. While holding true to our core, we must adapt and build new skills. We must persevere through setbacks, exercise creativity, and take risks to imagine and create a new and different reality.
My heart goes to our students, who will not be joining us this summer, to our staff, who are experiencing a profound sense of loss, and to our whole community, who all are grieving for so many different reasons right now. And yet, as I read this parshah, I remind myself that we’ve done this before. We’ve been in the wilderness. When we left Egypt, we didn’t know what the final destination would look like, and right now, we don’t know that either. While true wilderness may be out of the reach, we are all in process, on a “journey to” together. It’s scary, there’s no map, and no end in sight. And as we orient toward the future, it likely will get harder before it gets easier. But we can get through this. If any narrative defines us as a Jewish people, it is the “journey to” narrative, the ability to face a new future, embrace it, and chart a path forward together.
Jory Hanselman is the founding director of BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy at Ramah in the Rockies, the nation’s first Jewish wilderness therapy program. BaMidbar guides Jewish young adults struggling with depression, anxiety, and healthy pathways from adolescence to adulthood on individualized journeys of self-discovery and healing. Jory has been working in the field of wilderness therapy since 2012. She received her undergraduate degree from Tufts University and her Masters in Public Administration with a concentration in nonprofit management from University of Colorado. She is also a Wexner Field Fellow.