It has been a bit difficult to write lately. Perhaps it has simply been cumbersome to attempt to focus on anything at all. While my last tidbit was delivered primarily in reference to the highly contentious presidential election, there was an apolitical monster running rampant through the world; caring not for democrats or republicans, but only for suitable hosts. When I was writing posts related to COVID-19 so many months ago, I had hoped that the subject would become obsolete, and that the novel coronavirus would lose its novelty. Unfortunately, the opposite is true, as we have now seen 194,000 cases in one day in the United States, 11 million total cases, and over 245,000 deaths.
Our Torah study has been interrupted. Our sages, whom we know revered the study of Torah above almost all things, tell us that the study of Torah can be interrupted in order to attend a funeral procession. The Talmud informs us that Rabbi Judah bar Ilai would cease his Torah analysis and review to attend a funeral procession, with the caveat that the procession not contain “enough people.” According to Rav, “enough people” would be six thousand people and six thousand trumpeters. Many others said that “enough people” would be the amount it would take to form an uninterrupted line from the city to the gravesite (B. Ket 17a). Judging by the math of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, twelve-thousand people would be the sufficient amount to attend a funeral procession. This seems like a rather large number, but what do we know of numbers anymore?
Some people read the Torah and are initially taken aback regarding some of the numbers. How outrageous and ridiculous some might say! Let us look at this past week’s parshah to tie some of those numbers into our discussion. We recently read about Chayeii Sarah, or the Life of Sarah. Sarah is said to have died when she was 127 years-old. Abraham, who also passes in the portion, is about 175 years of age at the time of his death. How do we account for this? Rabbi David Rosenfeld explains that God originally gave human beings long spans of life in order to gain sufficient time to inch closer to perfection. Rabbi Rosenfeld goes on to assert the fact that God subsequently saw the sins of humankind become more prevalent, and shortened the human lifespan in order to make us all aware of our mortality. Perhaps if we know we are close to death, we will examine our behavior more thoroughly. Some people simply believe that the ages of many in the Torah were meant to be hyperbolic; perhaps utilized simply to symbolize a very long life. Whatever the purpose of the highly advanced ages, the contemporary reader often struggles to take the numbers seriously and literally.
This is one of those many moments wherein the Torah becomes so beautiful and relevant. Abraham; dead at 175. Absurd! From March 1st to April 4th, the United states originally reported about 8,000 COVID-19 deaths (we have since learned that the number was much higher). I remember my wife and I hunkering down in our isolation along with our newborn baby and five-year-old, worried about what the next day would bring. Fast forward only 7 or so months later, and our country alone is at approximately 250,000 deaths from this virus. 250,000 certainly seemed like an absolutely absurd(!) number only 7 months ago, and now we simply want the exponential growth to stop. 8,000 feels like a blip. The ages of our patriarchs and matriarchs can teach us, if nothing else, never to scoff at the numbers. What seems impossible to our very human understanding can prove to be far too possible in the blink of an eye.
What can we take away from all of this? We need to find a way to continue studying Torah. We need to find a way to stop the interruptions with the devastating need for funeral processions. If we do not act quickly and rightly, the numbers, which are already trending in a catastrophic direction, will continue to rage ferociously out of control. Rabbi Yohanan concluded that the people of Israel are like the olive. Why? Because the olive does not produce oil unless it is crushed. Rabbi Yohanan said that the Israelites required affliction to return to the right way (B. Men 35b). Have we all not been afflicted enough? Have we not learned the importance of wearing masks, socially distancing, and at this point, perhaps just staying home? How much crushing do we need in order to yield oil? Surely, we must meet God along this path, for our relationship is bidirectional.
The Mishkan T’Filah says, “You meant Torah for me: did you mean the struggle for me, too?” Perhaps we are meant to be like Jacob becoming Israel, after having wrestled (or struggled) with a divine being? Are we ready to transform into Israel, or are we still searching for the right way? I pray that our struggles with truth and righteousness begin to come to a healthy cessation in terms of COVID-19. If we politicize, minimize, or turn away as Jonah originally did, we will lose time with Torah. We will be as Rabbi Judah bar Ilai; busy attending far too many funeral processions.
Right now, the numbers are not in our favor. But, as we have learned, action can change ourselves, and change the world. I pray that our noses are soon back in Torah uninterrupted, and that we are able to utilize the oil of our affliction for the betterment of this world. Please stay safe and healthy.