Keeping Count in the age of Covid-19

This week is the first of God knows how many that will be strange. Shabbat morning communities are the beating heart at the center of Jewish religious life. Sending out closure messages that so many synagogues did was truly painful. But, of course, we are bound by a higher religious obligation- Pikuach Nefesh, the saving of life. Given what the science and the medical experts have shared, the difficult choice we have undertaken was also an obvious one.

This Shabbat our Torah reading begins with a warning about infections. Actually, one of the modern Hebrew words for virus, Nagif, comes from these verses. “When you undertake to tally the children of Israel for their enumeration, let each one of them give to God an atoning gift for their numbering; in order that there be no Negef (plague) in their taking a census.” Ex. 30:12

This commandment defines taking a census as approaching a grave sin. In undertaking a numbering of the people, as if they were simply troops to be mustered or soldiers to be sent off to war, we reduce human life. Each individual is of infinite worth, created uniquely in God’s image. This is a truth that the spreadsheets of epidemiologists, generals or politicians can never capture.

However, the real need of the nation to prepare for all kinds of contingencies is clear. A poem or a spiritual reflection on ultimate values is nice, but in the real world of governing and management decisions need to be made on the basis of facts. So the allocation of land and other resources, in order to be rational, needed to be based upon tribal populations. Numbers.

The balance was struck in the form of the half shekel offering all adult (male, in their age) Jews brought. When a full accounting of the shekels was complete, we not only had the funds necessary for the sanctuary. We also had a census.

In this moment there could not be a reading that more clearly addresses our attempts to balance our efforts to manage risk and responsibility. Our Negef, our plague, is one we hope to hold at bay as well. This requires us to endure significant disruption to our communal, and national life. Some have pointed out that the risk to many of us is quite low. And the death rate for Covid-19 remains near 1% of those infected. I have even heard a few voices suggest that we are going too far. “Risk of death is not new and if we look at the numbers…”

But 1% of our community is actually an enormous rate of death. And even if the rate were significantly lower, it would be our obligation to do all we could to protect the weak and vulnerable. The Torah seems to say that simply counting will cause the disease. That is clearly not what we believe in facing this virus. Even so, counting and measuring life only as quantifiable units in an actuarial table is a great danger. In fact, it is an illness itself.

Striking the balance between managing populations and their attendant needs and risks against our ultimate values is an eternal struggle. The hope of Parashat Ki Tissa is that we never stop counting our blessings.

May we all enjoy a Shabbat of health, peace and family. And may our Shabbat communities flourish once again when the current Nagif is past.

About the Author
Rabbi Ron Fish has served as rabbi in congregations in Connecticut and Massachusetts since his ordination from JTS in 1996. He also grew up as a child of rabbi, and from that perspective, he has learned the ups and downs of serving community. The father of four children, from college to pre-bar mitzvah age, Rabbi Fish is married to another TOI blogger, the brilliant Leah Bieler. Together, they have raised their kids to speak Hebrew, to sing in harmony and to embrace the dissonance that sometimes comes.
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