Eliyahu Safran
Eliyahu Safran

It’s not our fault… “leadership” in the time of COVID

Politico reports that Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio deflected blame when it became clear that they had stalled when action had been called for in battling the spread of the coronavirus. President Trump seems both combative and proud when he takes “no responsibility” for the crisis.

As these elected officials dithered, disassembled, and deflected, people continued to get sick and die. Even now, their finger pointing, and distraction continues.

How stark a contrast to Israel’s response! From very early, Israel instituted uncompromising rules that included lockdowns of certain regions as well as during Pesach and Yom Ha’atzmaut. Schools and shuls were closed. The police, army and Defense Department worked in tandem to assure compliance and coordination. Public and private entities worked in concert to develop solutions to keep people safe.

People were never reduced to mere numbers (accurately or not!) for political advantage.

Why such a difference in response?

No doubt there are many things commentators could point to, from the size of the countries to population density, to Israel’s familiarity with the need to overcome political differences and “come together” when faced with adversity. These are all interesting and insightful perspectives, but they miss the essential thing that differentiates Israel’s response to Covid from America’s – “v’chai ba’hem“.

You shall live by them.

“Take a census of all the congregation of Israel…”

In this pasuk from Parashat Bamidbar, “s’eu et rosh” is regularly translated as “counting” or “taking a census”. A literal translation of this command – “lift the head” – gives us a more insightful understanding of God’s meaning.

We are all experts at quantification. We mark the minutes in an hour; we count our change. We know how many days we’ve been in isolation. Numbers matter. That said, as exacting as we can be with manageable, countable numbers, we tend to blur our exactitude when the numbers grow too large.

When we represent something with a very large number – a population of half a billion, profits of two trillion dollars, the thousands of employees and yes, even the six million souls lost during the Holocaust – our numbers are not exact; they are representational.

When the numbers grow too large, we do not speak of that number of individuals with specific and unique experiences, loves, desires and fears. We speak of the whole. In this whole the individual is inevitably lost.

Certainly, that has been the case during our Covid crisis. Already, in the United States, we have lost more than 100,000 souls. But is that really 100,000? Are we rounding up or down? Have we “counted” accurately?

Do these numbers include names?

We too often lose the individual in the aggregate. God never does. He “lifts the head” of each individual and sees their faces.

In Parashat Bamidbar, we come to appreciate how deeply God loves the individual. Indeed, Rashi teaches us that the reason God keeps counting us again and again is because He loves us! No one – not one – gets lost in God’s counting. We lift our heads to Him. We are not merely counted but valued. Not only as a people but as individuals. Each one of us.

Jewish tradition values the individual. We are taught that, “For you was the world created” and that when one soul is lost it is as if all of creation has been destroyed.

Judaism is individual-centric. At Creation, God could have created one billion humans, but He chose to create one Adam and one Chava, making clear that each life is the entire universe. None of us is to be lost in the sea of humanity. Rabbi Soloveitchik once explained the real power of a minyan by teaching that. yes, we must have a quorum to pray, to recite Kedusha, and to read from the Torah but the ten individuals needed for the minyan are never swallowed up. Have nine individuals, have a single Yiddele missing and you have nothing.

The group does not exist but for the individuals. There is not so much an “us” as there is a “me and you and you and you…”

One issue that has demanded the attention of our contemporary poskim (halachic decisors) since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic is pikuach nefesh. The primacy of human life is the core value of the entire Torah. Therefore, saving a life – one, single life – is the ultimate Jewish value.

Combine pikuach nefesh with the two most important words in all Torah and you have the foundational truth of Jewish values. These two words are found in Vayikra 18:5, “You shall keep My laws and My rules, which man shall carry out and by which he shall live.” V’chai ba’hem makes clear that Torah’s mitzvoth were given for the sake of life. Torah is the enabler of life and for life. Nothing, except for the gimel aveirot – the three cardinal sins – are to ever get in the way of life.

No mitzvah, not of Shabbat, not of Yom Kippur, not of kashrut is more important than preserving life. It is this command to live that has defined our Covid-19 responsa.

For months, we have not done what is in our bones to do. We have not gathered in shuls to daven. We have not gathered to hear the Torah reading. We have not formed minyanim to recite kaddish. In other words, for months, the everyday routine and structure of our lives has been upended.

It has been disorienting. It has been gut wrenching.

Yes, we are individual-centric, but we also know and understand that alone and by himself, the individual lacks meaning and value. We need a community of individuals. We are one and we are many. Separated from our community is torturous for us.

And yet, when forced to balance between individuals and the community, we remember what is of most fundamental value. V’chai ba’hem. God does not want is in His shuls if our presence could compromise the health and well being of our fellows; even if it could compromise the health and well-being of even one of our fellows.

God revealed the gift of Torah to us as a guide for life. It has been our guide, our mission, and our priority during Covid. There has been nothing more sacred than the preserving of our own lives and the lives of every other individual Jew. Period.

V’chai ba’hem. For years – lifetimes – this command gave us a framework, a conceptual understanding, of the value of life. In these past, few months it has provided us with something more, an actual roadmap for our lives. Since around Purim, our everyday concerns and life of many mitzvoth have been suspended in deference to this fundamental world view.

We live in them. How? By pikuach nefesh; by the actions that preserve and protect life.

And if I must desecrate the Sabbath to save a life?

There are those who, self-righteously, might argue that while it is true that v’chai ba’hem is a all to save life, its use as justification during the Covid-19 crisis is little more than a salve, a cloak to disguise any “desecration” of Sabbath observance and all the other observances and Jewish communal experiences that have been compromised.

A straightforward response to this perverse interpretation can be found in Rambam’s Hilchot Shabbat (2:3) where he emphatically teaches, “Hence you learn that the ordinances of the Law were meant to bring upon the world not vengeance, but mercy, loving kindness, and peace. It is of heretics – who assert that this is nevertheless a violation of the Sabbath and therefore prohibited – that Scripture says, ‘Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and ordinances whereby they should not live’.”

No one who has behaved righteously will ever have cause to judge himself harshly when we are finally post-Corona. No one will have to think, “I stayed home and davened in my living room, but I should have been in shul.”

V’chai ba’hem.

Rabbi Mayer Twersky reminded us of this absolute truth, relating the Soloveitchik family tradition. When Rav Chaim Soloveichik’s oldest grandson (the Rav, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik) was an infant, he became so gravely ill and the doctor came to examine him on Shabbos. During the examination, Rav Chaim asked the doctor if he needed more light. The doctor, neither accepting or dismissing Rav Chaim’s offer, replied, “nu, nu.

Immediately, Rav Chaim instructed a family member to tend to the fire to provide more light. The family member, however, was deterred by the doctor’s neutral answer, and did not immediately comply with Rav Chaim’s directive. Rav Chaim excoriated him, “du bist a am ha’aretz un an apikores – you are an ignoramus and a heretic!”

V’chai ba’hem tolerates no hesitations or second guessing. “The saving of a life overrides the commandments of the entire Torah: and he shall live by them and not die by them. Desecrate one Sabbath on his account that he may keep many Sabbaths.” [Yoma 85b]. This is the watchword of Judaism.

In Parashat Naso, the Torah’s longest parasha, we learn about such important halachot as  Sotah, Nazir, and Birkat Kohanim. Just as we finally come to the close of Naso, we are slowed down as we read of the offerings of each of the Nesi’im brought to the dedication of the Mishkan.

Such a long story as the Torah delineates each offering separately in nearly identical pesukim! Repetion upon repetition. Why not save all those words and pesukim and just say they all brought the same korban?

In answer, the Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Ephraim Mirvis cites the Midrash which extols Netanel ben Tzuar, the second Nasi to offer his korban, as the hero of this very lengthy passage because by his action, he established a powerful and profound minhag.

With so many of us always trying to “outdo” our neighbors it is good to remember that Netanel ben Tzuar felt no need to “outdo” Nahson ben Aminadav. Nahson’s korban was good enough for God, it was good enough for Netanel. No more. No less. And his wisdom and example set the pattern for the other Nesi’im.

The Nesi’im brought the exact same offering. And God was pleased that no one sought to outdo the other, even for His sake and the sake of His sanctuary. This lesson might very well carry over into our own Corona times. In the May 20th issue of Mishpacha, Shaul C. Greenwalk wonders, “How Will Our Weddings Be Reshaped by Coronavirus?”

“Elements of our simchas had swelled out of proportion, and what was once considered extravagant, I realized is now considered de rigueur…then coronavirus struck. Suddenly chasunas were being held in backyards, with only a handful of people joining in. People were engaging in serious soul searching…Faced with tragic deaths, terrible sickness, and serious financial devastation, coronavirus had us all contemplating what really matters in our lives, and suddenly charcuterie boards and string quartets weren’t all that important anymore.”

Coronavirus and our call to pikuach nefesh have conspired to teach us a real-life lesson in Netanel ben Tzuar‘s nobility and character!

Would that our “leaders” shared that same nobility and character. Would that they understood pikuach nefesh. Would that they valued each and every individual life.

Imagine how many lives could have been saved these past months if pikuach nefesh had trumped politics! Imagine how much safer New York’s nursing homes would have been!

The lesson of the tribes is worth relearning in each generation. We all bring the same sacrifices, we read the same Torah, same Shulchan Aruch, lay the same tefillin and adorn our homes with the same mezuzot. But we are not all in the same tribe. We each live in our community, each with our own colors, own flags, own yarmulke, hat or shtreimel. We daven in our own shuls. Yes, we are different in some ways, but we must never forget we are the same in the worth and value of each individual Jew who comprises that tribe. Bamidbar opens with God counting every single Jew; God commands Moshe and Aaron to take a tribe by tribe census of every single one of His children. No one is to be lost in the many.

Yes, all tribes bring the same korban, but each tribe is different, and everyone within that tribe is unique. It is in our uniqueness that the full beauty of our community becomes clear.

We are one. We are not the same. Everyone is counted as an individual.

Our leaders need to remember this essential truth.



About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran is an educator, lecturer and author. He has devoted many years in the rabbinate, Jewish education, and as vice president of marketing and communications at OU Kosher. He resides in New York, while enjoying his long stays in Jerusalem. His highly acclaimed "Something Old, Something New - Pearls from the Torah" has been published by KTAV, July 2018.
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