Counting our way from Freedom to Responsibility

We are in the midst of counting the omer, counting the days from Pesach/Passover to Shavu’ot (“Weeks”).  We begin the count on the second night of Pesach and count “seven times seven” full weeks until we reach 49 days, and the next evening begins Shavu’ot.  

“The Torah itself dictates the counting of the seven weeks following Passover:

“You shall count from the eve of the second day of Pesach, when an omer of grain is to be brought as an offering, seven complete weeks. The day after the seventh week of your counting will make fifty days, and you shall present a new meal offering to God (Leviticus 23:15-16).”

In its biblical context, this counting appears only to connect the first grain offering to the offering made at the peak of the harvest. As the holiday of Shavu’ot became associated with the giving of the Torah, and not only with a celebration of agricultural bounty, the omer period began to symbolize the thematic link between Passover and Shavuot.

While Passover celebrates the initial liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, Shavuot marks the culmination of the process of liberation, when the Jews became an autonomous community with their own laws and standards.”  (MyJewishLearning.com, “How to Count the Omer“)

One can only imagine how heady the freedom felt when they were sure that their pursuers lay dead in the water behind them and they had left Egypt for good.  Their world had changed irrevocably for the better; Moses and Miriam led them in song and dance

Then reality set in.  Three days without water, and they were complaining bitterly.  The first water they found was also bitter, and had to be sweetened by throwing in a shrub or piece of wood.  (Exodus 15:22-25

They came to a place with plenty of water and palm trees (probably date palms), and camped there, but they couldn’t stay.  Their exodus from Egypt was not in order to wander aimlessly in the desert, or even to settle down and just enjoy themselves.  They were on their way to Mt. Sinai, where they would enter into a relationship of mutual responsibility with God as they understood God. 

And in the three chapters it takes to get there (Exodus 16-18), they complain that they are starving and thirsty.  They are attacked from behind.  Moses has to be helped by his father-in-law to understand that he cannot spend his whole day adjudicating disputes and teaching the rules, but needs a whole network of support to whom he can delegate most of the day-to-day questions.  They are free, but they don’t know how to structure their lives yet. The change is disorienting.  Sound familiar?

Our world changed irrevocably this year before Pesach ever arrived.  We are counting days of isolation as well as counting our way to Mt. Sinai.  There’s even a ritual for counting these days of lockdown, counting up toward the “ultimate in-person, regathering of our communities.”  (Whenever that may be and whatever it might look like.)

For me the first few weeks at home were ones of  innovation and re-prioritization. I write as someone with a house and several acres, secure employment that can be done remotely, reliable internet and fast devices, and children old enough to be mostly self-regulating.  For me it was a time of obsessive learning and connecting — on social media, by phone, by the now-ubiquitous Zoom. It was a time of daily counting the number of new cases and the number of people who died.  As I crunched numbers and looked at survival rates by age, I mourned in anticipated grief of how my own family and community would be affected by the coronavirus.  

But after several weeks of watching the graph, hardly daring to believe that the exponential doubling in NY was slowing down and the curve was flattening, it slowly became clear that my family and synagogue were not being touched at anywhere near the rate predicted by the aggregate statistics.  We now know that the experience of COVID-19, including cases and deaths, varies wildly:

  • By geography:  New York City became the epicenter (not only in the US, but in the world) with hundreds of deaths a day and an overwhelmed hospital system, but there are states that continue to report fewer than 5 deaths on any given day (look, for instance, at the Dakotas and Montana). 
  • And by economic security:  Everywhere, people who have to go to work physically (because their jobs are deemed “essential,” and their paycheck is essential for their family) are at higher risk.  These jobs are also overwhelmingly underpaid.  Poverty itself is an underlying condition:  Living in a food desert, or with food insecurity anywhere, is linked to many chronic but preventable diseases.
  • In the US, communities of color are disproportionately poor, as are immigrant communities, including people being held as refugees and asylum seekers.  People without stable housing and people in prison are disproportionately people of color.  And the nursing homes in NY State which have reported the highest rates of death also tend to have higher proportions of residents who are people of color, though I don’t have data about who is dying.  

My grief and horror shifted as I understood the impact of the numbers.  The rate at which my family, my congregation, and my friends are not being directly touched is inversely mirrored by the rate at which people of color and people with inadequate economic resources are getting seriously ill and dying.  

Because the US is incredibly stratified and segregated — by geography, by economics, and by color and culture — there are still large segments of our population who don’t personally know anybody who has died or even tested positive.  I have been watching for a spike in identified cases 10-14 days after Easter, not only because of some churches defying regulations, but because I suspect that many families, believing themselves safe, got together for Easter dinner.  Look at the graphs: It’s there, both nationally and in many states, around April 22-25.  

It’s a human response to find a way to explain why “they” got hit with a horrible thing but “we” are safe from it.  If you are reading this in the US, ask yourself: Could you envision the current situation as the virus made itself known in Asia and Europe?  If you are anywhere near NYC, could you imagine massive outbreaks locally when identified cases were only on the West Coast?  Most people simply could not conceptualize something so totally outside of our experience.

Given the economic devastation wrought by the shutdown and the reality of some people not seeing the virus personally, one can begin to understand some people characterizing the response as an overreach by their state’s governor.  In the last two weeks we have seen protests in some places (sometimes incorporating anti-Semitic slogans and imagery) demanding re-opening and declaring that the states’ stay-at-home and close-business orders are infringements of personal freedom.  These look like grassroots protests, and I’m sure the people who participate in them believe what they are saying; but there is an element of “astroturf” to them.  They are not simply spontaneous outbursts of community sentiment; they have been carefully orchestrated and stirred up by far-right organizers, using internet platforms to coordinate.  And nowhere in any of the photos of protesters will you see people of color.  

Rabbi Gordon wearing a fabric mask over nose and mouth with colorful Hebrew letters on it
I WEAR THIS FOR YOU

Meanwhile polling data indicated that a large majority of people in the US support the measures and are more worried about a too-rapid reopening.  The protests got a lot of attention in the news, but in reality only a very small percentage of the population participated.  As I tell my children when scary things happen, it’s “news” precisely because it doesn’t happen all time time.  Where I live, the vast majority of people are wearing masks outside and try to keep 6 feet distant even in grocery store lines.  We notice the exceptions because they are the exceptions.  

From my perspective the real evil that is happening right now is taking place among a powerful minority who are enriching themselves further, blocking common-sense supports, diverting money and resources, giving license to expressions of hatred, and being careless of the power of their words … I’m not sure I can continue with this.   There are people with blood on their hands, people who could have prevented deaths and did not.

I pray that there is a reckoning ahead.  The principle of pikuach nefesh, saving human life, is deeply embedded in Jewish law and custom, and these recent weeks have made it clear that the US needs to make huge strides in providing universal healthcare, childcare, and internet access, a living wage, and a safe working environment for everyone.  Because it turns out that caring for the people who care for us all is in the best interests of everybody.   

Meanwhile, humans everywhere are facing an unknown amount of time in the desert, not knowing what will feed us spiritually and emotionally — and for plenty of people, literally.  We are dealing with loss and uncertainty, stress and trauma, and the past is looking awfully good sometimes, just as it did for the complaining Israelites.   But we can’t go back there.  We can only go forward.