Advances in the treatment, prevention, and de-stigmatization of HIV/AIDS have improved dramatically over the past several decades. But the AIDS walk in New York City this Sunday reminds us that we have miles to go to end AIDS in New York by 2020, in the United States by 2025, and worldwide by 2030.
This year, the AIDS walk falls during Sefirat HaOmer, the 49 days that Jews count between the festivals of Passover and Shavuot, and just before Lag Ba’Omer, the 33rd day in the counting. This seven week period marks the time between the exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah at Sinai.
This window of time is a period of semi-mourning on the Jewish calendar. We remember a different epidemic that occurred in talmudic times. The Talmud teaches that it was during this exact time of the year, in the second century, that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva, one of the greatest scholars of the Mishna, died in a terrible plague. We learn that the students died because “they did not treat each other with respect.” Yevamos 62b. That many people dying is a devastating loss of biblical proportions. Numbers 25:9.
Next week, on Lag Ba’Omer, we commemorate and celebrate the end of the plague. According to tradition, the plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer. (The Hebrew letters lamed and gimel which make up the acronym “Lag” have the combined numerical value of 33.) Our rabbis teach that the plague ended only because R’ Akiva’s most important lesson: to “love your neighbors like [you love] yourself” was finally learned. As a result, Lag Ba’Omer became a happy day, interrupting the sadness of the Omer period for 24 hours.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017 (the most recent year for which this information is available), the number of new HIV diagnoses in the United States was still more than 38,700. An estimated 1.1 million people in the United States were living with HIV at the end of 2016. Of those people, about 14%, or 1 in 7, did not know they had HIV. And it is estimated that 692,790 Americans have died of HIV-related illnesses since the start of the pandemic in 1982.
Although there is much work to be done to combat AIDS, we have learned many things since the beginning of the pandemic. We now know that antiretroviral medications can sustain the health of people living with HIV and stop transmission of HIV to others. We know that we must expand access to healthcare, ensure comprehensive sexual health education and services, and increase access to preventative measures like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). And we know that people living with HIV who have an undetectable level of the virus in their blood through effective treatment cannot pass the virus on to others.
While the numbers may feel overwhelming, organizations like Housing Works and GMHC continue to work tirelessly to prevent HIV/AIDS transmission, provide care, and advocate to end AIDS. Perhaps just as importantly, these organizations – and so many others – have worked to end the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS.
As our Rabbis explain that during the Omer we mourn the loss of those 24,000 who died because they failed to treat each other with respect, we are reminded that as a community, we have still not sufficiently internalized the mandate of treating each other – or ourselves – with respect. Respecting ourselves and others means getting tested, knowing our status, having accurate information, ensuring that care is accessible, and ending the stigma.
As we count the days of the Omer, we recall the ending of the plague of the second century and prepare to receive and accept the Torah at Sinai. Let us also acknowledge our communal responsibility to respect each other and ensure that we end this modern day plague too. Keyn yehi ratzon.
This post was co-authored with Rabbi Mike Moskowitz, CBST’s Scholar-in-Residence for Trans and Queer Jewish Studies.