COVID-19 AND Tu B’Shevat

Reflecting upon the deeper meaning of Tu b’Shevat last week helped clarify for me the meaning of a difficult passage in Sefer Yoel with which my Seniors group and I have been grappling.

Joel 2:2, forecasting a mighty locust-plague (according to Abarbanel it is a metaphor for the impeding invasion of Nebuchadnezzar’s armies) declares: A day of darkness and gloom; a day of cloud and thick darkness, like the dawn spreading over the mountains …..

 Why “the dawn”? Isn’t dawn a harbinger of day, of brightness and of light?

Not in the sacred Hebrew tongue, it would seem. The word for dawn is shakhar – related to shakhor, blackDawn is the moment when the dark blackness is at its peak.  Anyone who has ever been up at the moment of halachic dawn would testify to this!  Nary a chink of light can be seen!

This also assists us in elucidating the enigmatic superscription to the famous Psalm 22.  For the conductor upon the [rising of the] “dawn star” (there are other interpretations of the term ayelet ha-shakhar including that it is a musical instrument) followed immediately by My G-D, My G-D, why have You forsaken me?”

 Why would King David give vent to an expression of despair at dawn, of all times, were it not that he, too, can see, at that moment, only the nadir of dawn’s blackness.

 There is an English saying attributed to Thomas Fuller that “the darkest hour is just before the dawn”. Probably the Jewish version would be that the darkest moment is the moment of dawn!”  

But of course, precisely because dawn is the darkest moment, it is a harbinger of the coming day which is sure to follow.  And therein lies the paradox!

Both Joel’s “dawn” and King David’s “dawn” are moments of despair. Neither can see beyond it.  All each can visualise is the most viscous gloom of a here-and-now prophecy/state of being.

All this relates closely to Tu b’Shevat. 15th Shevat, say our Sages, marks the juncture when most of the winter rains have fallen and when the sap starts to rise in the bark of the trees. In other words, it heralds the coming spring in Erets Yisrael.   Yet normally, at this time, Israel in common with most other Northern-hemisphere countries is in the grip of deepest, darkest winter!  It is easy, like King David and like the prophet Joel, to be mired by the environmental gloom all around, the bare branches, the somnolent earth.

But the despair does not endure forever.  A few verses on, David exclaims: In You our fathers trusted …and You delivered them. To You they cried out and were rescued …..They who commit to G-D, He will deliver  .. He will save them (23:5,6, 9).  And later in the “day of darkness” chapter, Joel exclaims: Have no fear, O land, rejoice and be glad for G-D will have performed great things! (2:21).

These thoughts ought to speak to us with compelling relevance as we survey the present Covid-19 scene worldwide.

Many of us had hoped that we had reached the nadir of the epidemic – the shakhar if you will – months ago. Now it appears to many that the shakhar is now. Death tolls in America, UK and rakhmana le-tslan in Israel as well as in other countries continue to rise.  Even with the “dawn” of the Covid-19 vaccines that are now becoming available, a signal of better times, it is hard for us to see beyond the gloom as more and more of us hear of – or, G-D forbid, experience – the demise of those we know or knew who were in the peak of health and have now succumbed to the dreaded disease.  And with the virulent new strains of the virus emanating from UK and South Africa, there is no guarantee even that the vaccines will be effective for long or even at all.

King David and the prophet Joel also despaired.  But only momentarily. It should not escape our notice that for both king and prophet their epiphany of light and hope and consequent joy only came when they took cognizance of G-D and His power to save.  They lifted up their hearts and their voices to the Source of all help and succour.

Our salvation does not lie in the vaccines. Of course we must heed the advice of our GPs in that regard and in most cases that will probably be to take whatever vaccine is locally available. G-D helps those who help themselves.  But maybe G-D wants something more from us.  Such as heeding the verse in Eicha (Lamentations) Nakhpesa derakheinu ve-nakhkora ve-nashuva eileikha. Let us examine our ways and analyse – so that we may return to You.  As individuals, as a Jewish community  and as a human society. Let’s take an injection of G-D as well as the vaccine!

Playing around with numbers as I sometimes do, I found to my astonishment that gematria supports this thesis. The word Israelis have adopted for the Covid-19 vaccine is chisun (חיסון). This word comes from a root meaning sturdy, strong or powerful.  This betrays, I am sad to say, a secularist state of mind.  The vaccine is powerful and strong and will cure the world of its Covid ills. Well I have news! The gematria of חיסון is 134, the very same number-value as the word ve-hanega  והנגע)) “and [also] the plague (or affliction)”  The chisun, the vaccine may be very powerful. But so is the nega, the affliction!  Equally powerful it appears is the continually-mutating virus!

 Sadly our world has becomes so secularised that many mock at the idea that G-D has sent us Covid-19 as a wake-up call and that it isn’t a random accident or a statistical “once-in-a century pandemic”.

But of course these same people fail to marvel when winter turns inexorably to spring, the barren branches grow luxuriant leaves and succulent fruits and the earth is awash with fragrant flowers of all shapes, sizes and hues.  All “by accident”?

Are we at the Covid “dawn”? Or are, G-D forbid, darker moments ahead?  We don’t know. But we shouldn’t despair.  G-D is teaching us through the holy tongue that the dawn, the shakhar, is imperceptible.   But it is a promise of better things.  Provided that we do our part by penetrating the roots of our ills as well as fighting the symptoms.

When that concept dawns on us all, our horizons will well and truly light up!

Rabbi Chaim Ingram OAM

About the Author
Rabbi Chaim Ingram is the author of four books on Judaism and honorary rabbi of Sydney Jewish Centre on Ageing.
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