Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

Keep People Alive

Well, it was bound to happen eventually. People are starting to go a little crazy during this pandemic; they are resisting the quarantines and stay-at-home orders, refusing to wear masks, refusing to social distance, and even engaging in protests to “re-open” businesses in the face of a troubling economic situation.

  • In Michigan, thousands of people engaged in “Operation Gridlock” tying up traffic near the Capitol, despite their COVID-19 numbers going up.
  • In Kentucky, over 100 protesters chanted “we want to work” and “facts over fear,” despite the 2,291 cases in Kentucky so far.
  • A troubling picture of over 100 protesters close together and banging on the statehouse door in Ohio recently surfaced, with protesters questioning the governor, asking “”Don’t he believe in less government? Small government?”
  • In Utah, protests were similar, claiming the stay-at-home orders for health and safety were a “government mandate” and “restrictions taking away our rights.”
  • We see similar protests and claims in North Carolina, Virginia, and elsewhere. People are going crazy.

In a situation where thousands are infected and dying, people of all ages, as this terrible pandemic runs loose through our nation, instead of focusing on health and safety, the protestors are speaking words that seem so empty, like “You have to do what’s best for your business.” People are accusing their government officials who are attempting to save their lives of “going too far” with restrictions on everyday activities.

Somehow, certain Americans, obviously a minority, have been convinced that money is more important than health, that the economy’s ability to rebuild is more important than the death of their friends and family. Somehow these Americans dismiss the dangers laid out in plain sight by the CDC, by the W.H.O., by the numbers of deaths climbing, and believe that their government’s attempt to protect them is a restriction of their rights or government acting “too big.” Even if these Americans choose to note believe the CDC or W.H.O, they must see the results of such actions, such as the death of Gerald O. Glenn, the bishop of a Virginia church who openly defied social distancing. COVID-19 took him without a second thought, as it did Pastor Landon Spradlin who called the concern over Coronavirus a “hysteria.” Church leaders in Sacramento California told government to “leave them alone” and now 70 of their parishioners have the virus. We’re seeing reports over and over again of one person, just one person who does not show symptoms can and does infect 30-80 people around them, causing severe health issues, overwhelmed hospitals, and death. As one former representative in George put it, it’s “a combination of politics, misinformation, economic hardship, emotion/anxiety/, and well-intentioned civil disobedience.”

If only there was a lesson taught by our Torah portion on this situation this week that could help remind people of the danger of defying orders for their safety! As it turns out, there is such a lesson.

In our parsha this week, Shmini, we see the tragic deaths of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu. Leviticus 9:22 begins:

Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he stepped down after offering the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the offering of well-being. 23 Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Lord appeared to all the people. 24 Fire came forth from before the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the LORD alien fire, which He had not enjoined upon them. 2 And fire came forth from the LORD and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD meant when He said:

Through those near to Me I show Myself holy,

And in all the people’s presence shall I be honored.

And Aaron was silent.

So the main questions from the commentators was “what is alien fire”? According to JPS commentator Baruch Levine, the Hebrew aish zarah “refers to the incense itself…the text does not specify the offense committed by the two young priests; it merely states that they brought an offering that had not been specifically ordained.”

A modern scholar, M. Haran, suggests that “the offense of the two priests lay n using incense brought from outside the sacred area between the altar and the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. It was therefore impure.”

Levine continues that other Midrashic interpretations “play on the verb k-r-v, ‘to draw near, approach,’ reflected in va-yirivu, ‘they brought near, presented,’ in verse 1.”

In other words, friends, what was the sin of Nadab and Abihu that ultimately led to their death? Bringing in something that was outside the safe zone, outside of the specified area, and getting too close, approaching too near. They died instantly, in front of their family, and friends because of this sin. We don’t know if it was intentional or accidental, but the outcome is the same; they died. They weren’t given a chance to ask forgiveness for their mistake, or correct what they had done, they died for violating the rules meant to keep things in order and keep them safe. The parallels are all too familiar, almost obvious. The coronavirus does not care who you are, what you want, or how much money you make; it does not provide second chances, nor does it forgive. It infects, and kills those who bring it into their world, and infects those who get too close to it. And what’s more, listen to Moses, what he tells his brother Aaron after watching the young priests, his nephews die in front of him. “This is what God meant when God said, through those near to Me I show myself.” Whoa. The true nature of God is revealed to those who get close enough, and frankly, the true nature and danger of the coronavirus is revealed who get too close as well. “And in all the people’s presence shall I be honored,” Moses continues, speaking of God. It is only in the face of the death of a loved one when the risks the coronavirus are taken seriously by some. And what else could Aaron say? The text tells us, he was silent. There was nothing he could do in the face of his children’s death. We see that same helplessness don’t we? We can only be silent in the face of those dying in front of us, those who violated stay-at-home orders, who put profit over people, who dismissed the risks as a hoax or hysteria. We can only silently mourn them and wish they had just listened and followed the rules.

When people speak out on the news or elsewhere that the economy needs to be rebuilt and that’s the priority. If anyone has read the book of Job, they’ll remember the end, when Job defies the way of the world, feeling he knows better than God. God replies these famous words:

Who is this who darkens counsel,
Speaking without knowledge?
3 Gird your loins like a man;
I will ask and you will inform Me.
4 Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Speak if you have understanding.
5 Do you know who fixed its dimensions
Or who measured it with a line?
6 Onto what were its bases sunk?
Who set its cornerstone
7 When the morning stars sang together
And all the divine beings shouted for joy?

It’s a moment of awakening from Job’s arrogance. God says to him, who do you think you are, thinking you know better? In the face of the mysteries of nature and the power of the unknown, God tells Job, speak up, you think you know so much! If only God could speak into the ears of those defying the dangers of the coronavirus, those with the arrogance to think they know better than the doctors, the experts, that somehow this will not affect them.

At the end of the book of Job, he is given his wealth back, and given seven sons and three daughters. Most would read this as a time to celebrate, that his defiance brought him his wealth and status back, but as humans we know better. So what if Job got his wealth back? He had lost everything. So what if he had seven sons and three daughters? Anyone will tell you that new children do not replace the dead ones. Job had lost his children, mourned their deaths; they cannot be replaced.

Nor can any of those who have died from COVID-19 be replaced. The economy, going back to work sooner, yelling and screaming protest signs of big government and trampled rights will not bring back the deaths of those already and those to come. And if people do violate the stay-at-home orders or reopen the country too soon, we will see more death, more irreplaceable men women and children die because of the arrogance and misunderstandings of others. The economy can be rebuilt, people can’t be.

May we hold tight, remember the words of the experts, follow the rules, lets we end up like Nadab and Abihu, like Job or his sons. The price is simply too high. Yes, people are struggling, yes they are without work, but they are alive. Let’s keep people alive and defeat COVID-19 together, knowing that we can always build a better future, but never replace those we lose.

About the Author
Michael E. Harvey is a Reform Rabbi, ordained by the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in 2015. After leading multiple congregations across the United States, Mike proudly served as a hospital chaplain at IU Health during the height of COVID-19. Mike is passionate about social justice, interfaith cooperation, and bringing deep Jewish learning to the lay public. He has followed these passions in serving his communities, including founding and directing interfaith councils and sitting on multiple boards, locally and nationally. In 2022, Mike wrote and published his first book, Let’s Talk: A Rabbi Speaks to Christians, which became an Amazon Bestseller. Mike's current projects include finishing his second book, and completing his doctorate degree at Spertus Institute of Jewish Learning and Leadership. His new book "From the Gospels to the Gas Chambers: How Christian Scripture Inspires a Pattern of Genocide" is in production and is in need of a publisher.
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