Facebook Post of Rabbi Perlin in the Time of Coronavirus (5/19/2020)
Tuesday Post 5.19.20: Numbers = Names
As the weekly Torah portions continue along with our pandemic isolation, we find ourselves beginning the Book of Numbers this week. This fourth of the Five Books of Moses begins with a census of the male members of the community. But, what should scream to us from the ever- relevant, always revealing biblical text is the fact that centuries after Sinai, we know the actual names of the census takers! These essential workers, heads of tribes chosen to assist Moses and Aaron with the census, were so important that their names were included in the Torah: Elizur, Shelumiel, Nahshon, Nethanel, Eliab, Elishama, Gamaliel, Abidan, Ahiezer, Pagiel, Eliasaph, and Ahira.
If we weren’t in the midst of a pandemic, the importance of taking an accurate census might be the lesson of the first fifteen lines of the Book of Numbers. But, I see something very different this morning. I see the importance of counting every person, every name, taken by this grave and dangerous plague. Each person matters. Each person counts. Each person deserves not only our grief, but our acknowledgment of a life taken before its natural time. Each name mattered to God and the Torah. I wish we would see the numbers matter in a real, human way to those in charge. Where is the anguish of the loss of human life that should be ever present? Where are the tears and the heartache reflected in the demand to revise numbers for political messaging?
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Washington Post published pictures and bios of every service member who lost their lives. I papered the walls of our synagogue with those names and faces, because half the households of our congregation had someone who was serving or had served our nation, and each one was a hero to be remembered with honor. I read the obituaries in the paper every morning, but the gravity of the tens of thousands of lives is not represented in a heart-wrenching way. Early on, when this pandemic was just getting started, CNN decided to put the numbers of cases and deaths in a sidebar on our TV screens. One of the journalists remarked that they had received comments that it was “too depressing.” Who are we and what have we become? Every life is precious. Every life lost is a hole in someone else’s heart.
And we have a population more concerned with going to Ocean City, MD – to the beach – where it was reported today that 90% of the people didn’t wear facemasks and that business owners were worried about their safety with the lack of social distancing concerns. Perhaps, some lives don’t matter. That attitude causes so much pain in my heart that it takes my breath away. Sweden has the highest death rate in Scandinavia, because it chose another way. Some extol its approach of sacrificing a few more lives to achieve herd immunity for all. We won’t know for quite some time, but I don’t think that is what the Torah teaches.
We are up against a plague that has more information than we have yet to uncover. And we are faced with a failure in leadership here at home, and a failure of global partnership around the planet. Without adequate testing and a national plan, we are undercounting the number of deaths, and discounting those who have already died with responses that care more about the markets than the Marks.
Every number is a name. Every name is a life. Every life matters. That is what the Torah portion teaches me this week, as I wish we saw more grief and accurate counting.