Terribly relevant: Torah, pandemic, racism

In March, Annie Weinberg, who works as a digital political organizer, published “How to Host a Virtual Passover Seder.” She wrote, “This year, for the holiday, Earth got us a pandemic! Which, honestly, is a pretty terrible present. And also a little too biblically on-the-nose.”

Humor – gallows humor in particular – is a matter of taste. Personally, I laughed heartily. In the ensuing weeks, however, I have a different response: I feel awe. Our holy days and readings have been obviously, stirringly, eerily relevant.

Passover raised the issue of plagues during a pandemic. In the spirit of Dayenu, we noticed and felt grateful for each bit of grace. As highly privileged “prisoners in our own homes,” many of us realized how poorly we had previously empathized with our ancestors and with slaves today.

For the last few months, Torah readings have addressed questions of immediate concern, such as: What is the proper response to people who have – or may have – a highly contagious disease? What is their obligation to community, and vice versa? How will leaders assist with healing? Yes, the double portion of Tazria-Metzora was “on the nose.”

How do we comfort people when their loved ones die suddenly and traumatically (Acharei Mot)? What responsibility do we have for our neighbors, and how do we build a society that is both healthy and holy (Kedoshim)?

Many of us lose countless hours on screens. Sometimes, we don’t even know what day it is. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “the Bible senses the diversified character of time,” and this is especially true in the recent Torah portion Emor. How can we honor Shabbat and holidays – while “in our settlements,” our homes, as Emor repeatedly stresses? How can we bring the proper contribution for each day, d’var yom beyomo, offering every word and deed at its intended, propitious time?

The portion Behar addresses raw concerns: How will we eat if we can’t work? If society simply stops, how will we take care of people who are already poor? How will we continue to give and share if we, ourselves, feel less secure? How can we prevent generational poverty?

The Torah portions of the last two weeks are titled with key words meaning lifting (Naso) and uplifting (Beha’alotecha), which we desperately need now. The first image in Naso is counting individual heads for a census. This reading comes to us as we undertake a census and voting, as we consider how people “count” – and sometimes don’t – in our society. In Naso, all tribes bring equal gifts; all are duly honored. Each precious head is lifted, to be counted. Contrast that with a knee on a neck or two bullets in the back.

The first image in last week’s portion, Beha’alotecha, is that of Aaron attending to the Menorah, to keep the sanctuary, literally and metaphorically, filled with Light. Imagine if all leaders did the same for spaces under their purview.

Beha’alotecha also includes the story of Aaron and Miriam speaking against Moses because he married a Cushite (i.e., Ethiopian, Black) woman. We might label this “on-the-nose,” yet the elliptical episode suggests layers of questions about race, gender, the corrosive power of speech, and unequal punishment for the same offense. Humble Moses prays for his sister’s healing, even after she criticized him and disrespected his wife. The entire people wait for a week in the desert, so that all, including the perpetrators, can move forward together. Collectively, the people refuse to divide the community further, after a painful and hateful division.

During this extended period of crisis, the Torah seems to be rising up and lifting its voice to provide timeless and timely wisdom.

This week’s Torah portion, Shelach, is less on-the-nose, more subtle. Still, there are significant connections between ancient text and today’s context. Shelach includes the story of the 12 spies, one leader from each tribe, who scouted the Promised Land. The response of 10 out of the 12 is considered so sinful that when the people as a whole subscribe to their view, an entire generation is made to wander and die in the desert, never entering the Holy Land. In several ways worth contemplating, our problems and sins are like those of the 10 spies.

  • Two out of 12 spies were doubted and shouted down when they saw a truth that the others did not want to admit. In percentage terms, that’s 16.6% – on a par with the African-American population in the United States, which stands at about 14%. The 10 spies who said that it was impossible to reclaim the Land of Israel did not differ with Joshua and Caleb, the two righteous reporters, on the beauty of the Promised Land. But the majority were frightened at the prospect of what they might lose. By entering a new land and creating new institutions, the tribal leaders would forfeit the safety and comfort of the status quo and possibly lose their privileged positions. In their panic, they forgot the promise of Divine protection and the assurance of a better future, if only they would work for it. They would not hear the righteous testimony of their brothers in the minority. Not only were they blind to the truth, they were deaf to correction. Sound familiar?
  • The 10 spies misjudged when to speak, what to address, and when to remain silent. In fact, they were never asked to do reconnaissance. They were sent to confirm Moses’ prophetic understanding of Israel as “a land of milk and honey.” They were meant to stoke enthusiasm, not fear. In the words of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “the [10 spies] completely misunderstood their mission.” Because of their misunderstanding, they became poor allies and inserted themselves into the conversation in unwelcome, unhelpful ways. White people, take heed.
  • The 10 spies dehumanized others. They characterized people occupying the Land as giants, descended from male angels and female humans (Num. 13:28,33; Gen. 6:2-4). This seems absurd, and in the Book of Joshua, people dwelling in the land indeed prove to be mere humans. Minor physical differences should spark neither fear that hijacks rationality nor denial of someone else’s humanity. But the spies responded in both those ways, as do many people today.
  • The 10 spies imagined themselves to be under attack and smaller than they actually were. Misrepresenting the land’s residents as giants, the spies cast them as fearsome enemies and themselves, as weak victims. They projected their own distorted vision onto others: “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we were in their eyes” (Num. 13:30). Who is powerful and who is weak can become a point of controversy when powerful people feel threatened. In a 2018 poll by PRRI and MTV, 55% of White Americans maintained that discrimination against White people is as big a problem as discrimination against Black people and other minority groups.
  • The 10 spies engaged in fearmongering, which led to despair and violence. With hyperbole and lies – our enemies are giants, the land devours its inhabitants, the caravan will harm you – a small number of leaders can whip the general population into a frenzy. “The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night” (Num.14:1). They were ready to stone Caleb and Joshua for urging them not to fuel fear, and instead to own their power and behave better. Frightened and furious, the people wanted to return to slavery in Egypt. Going back to the bad old days seemed like a good plan, as it does for some people today. Hope and faith were not so much lost as tossed.

As we witness the tremendous pain caused by racism and by the pandemic, it can be tempting to go numb or to succumb to fear or rage. But the Torah demands that we meet each moment by discerning the truth of the situation and of our mission. We are commanded to bring love, justice, hope, and healing to this world. Physical danger for some has become a spiritual turning point for all. The Torah, the medical experts, and the African-American community have all been speaking clearly. If we don’t listen, the sin is ours.

About the Author
Debra Orenstein, rabbi of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, NJ, is an acclaimed scholar-in-residence. She is editor of Lifecycles 1:Jewish Women on Life Passages and Personal Milestones and Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life (Jewish Lights). A seventh generation rabbi, she was in the first rabbinical class at The Jewish Theological Seminary to include women.
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