Several weeks ago, the former UK Chief Rabbi, Lord Jonathan Sacks, referred to the COVID-19 pandemic as “a revelation, even for atheists,” meaning that this harrowing experience has brought into relief so much to us about our society, its fault lines, and its vulnerabilities that have long gone unnoticed and unaddressed. Speaking in more secular terms, others have referred to the need for a true reckoning, an accounting, to more fully appreciate how our world has been indelibly changed by the pandemic’s magnitude and impact – and in what ways it needs to change in response to that impact.
The beginning of this morning’s Torah portion includes such an accounting – a census of the Israelites that was conducted at the end of their 40 years of wandering through the wilderness. It took place, we are told, after a plague struck the camp, killing twenty-four thousand individuals. This is the second census of the Israelites and the two bookend Seder Bamidbar – known for that reason as the Book – of Numbers. The first took place a generation earlier as the Israelites prepared to leave Mount Sinai and embark upon their journey. The numbers are a bit different, but, in the aggregate, they are largely the same.
The rabbis offer several explanations as to the meaning of these two countings. One interpretation, found in the Midrash, is that they were meant to measure the leadership of Moses, offering the analogy of a shepherd taking a flock out to pasture. The owner of the flock counts the sheep as they leave to roam and graze, and then again as the shepherd brings them home. Similarly, God counted the Israelites as Moses led them into the wilderness, and then again as Moses began to transfer the mantle of leadership to Joshua, with God certifying that the numbers add up, even after the trials and tribulations of their many years of wandering.
However, despite the fact that their numbers were more or less equivalent before and after their journey, the Israelites were not the same people. The things they experienced together, both triumphs and tragedies, had changed them. In fact, the very words that introduce the census in this week’s portion are “Vayehi acharei hamagefa – and it was, following the plague.” Something significant had happened; things were no longer the same.
In fact, according to the classic 19th century commentator, known as Malbim, Rabbi Meir Leibush Ben Yechiel Michel Wisser, it was actually the act of counting that, itself, miraculously ended these plagues.
According to the Torah, each plague manifested God’s anger at sinners within the Israelite camp – the first time, the episode of the Golden Calf, and the second time, the many Israelites who were seduced into worshipping Midianite idols. Perhaps, then, we might understand that the plagues itself, as devastating as they must have been, were also symbolic, meant as tangible expressions of how the Israelites, as a body politic, were sick. By counting and accounting for each of the Israelites, God and Moses reaffirmed the intrinsic value of each individual as well as their place and purpose within the larger collective – and it was that reaffirmation, both of people and of principles, that ended the plagues.
In the year 2020, our own meditations on the COVID-19 pandemic reflect each of these interpretations. First, per the Midrash, it is an accounting of our leaders, whose decisions, statements, and judgments literally have meant life or death for many thousands of people. Like Moses, they will have to face the cold reality of the numbers, and we will all have the opportunity to judge whether they met this moment or let us down.
At the same time, like the Biblical Israelites, we are not the same people we were before the pandemic began. In this spirit, the interpretation of Malbim dovetails with the words of Rabbi Sacks, who continued by declaring how the pandemic has shown us the “inescapably interlinked nature of our humanity. The covenant of human solidarity. The thing that makes each of us not only an ‘I’ but part of the greater human ‘we’. In the spirit of this understanding, the accounting we must conduct is not a post-mortem, but the cure itself. Indeed, the pandemic has highlighted long-festering racial and economic inequities. The difficulty for so many to take simple steps to protect others, including wearing masks in public places, demonstrates a troubling lack of civic responsibility. The impatience that led to lethally premature reopenings in so many parts of the country betray our lack of national resilience and shared purpose. The only thing that will definitively end what plagues us is a full accounting of our society and the forces at play within it, taking concrete steps to more fully respect both the innate dignity of each individual and the lofty ideals to which our country aspires.
A taste of The Hampton Synagogue pre-recorded Shabbat services televised nation-wide on JBS-Jewish Broadcasting Service. For more information and your local channel, visit www.jbstv.org