Hashem spoke to Moses, saying: ‘When you take a census of the Children of Israel according to their numbers, every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be a plague among them when counting them…Exodus 30:11-12
Last Friday, in honor of Shabbat, I read the Parshat HaShavua. Imagine my surprise when I read the opening line of the Parsha, Ki Tisa. My 2020 U.S. census request, freshly plucked from my mailbox, sat across from me. And, as of last week, the world had fundamentally changed.
Living in a major metropolitan area has its benefits: Jewish community, access to more goods and services, and plenty of activities and job opportunities. The benefits of living here disappeared almost entirely in the past few days. The San Francisco Bay Area, where I currently reside, has become a ghost town.
Meanwhile, the United States is requesting a census. It is not a census of the Children of Israel in particular, but at the same time that a census of this country is being taken, we are facing a pandemic of massive proportions.
It’s not the physical proportions to which I am referring, but the spiritual. Coronavirus was so named because of the virus’s crown shape. “Corona” means crown in Latin.
For generations we have relied upon the ancient stories and wisdom of the Torah, especially in the weekly portion, for guidance even in our own times. It seems that the Parshat HaShavua of last week is telling us to be ready for the king. To count our numbers. To atone for our souls.
Every man shall give Hashem an atonement for his soul…so that there will not be a plague among them.
This current plague is causing a massive shutdown of metropolitan areas such as these, as well as in many parts of the country and the world. The effects are astronomical: the economy has crashed, panic is widespread, and quarantines are in nearly full effect. Schools have been cancelled or moved online. Work from home has become the norm. And, as of yesterday, local news informed me that residents of the entire Bay Area, aside from people who work in essential businesses and functions, are ordered to stay home.
Families are coming together once again. Jokes abound about how families are getting to know one another again, husbands and wives meeting as if for the first time. It’s funny, but it represents a sad truth, especially here in the Bay Area, where workaholism is normalized.
This is the time to return home, to reconnect with the families for whom we are supposedly slaving 60 hours a week. This is an opportunity to reflect, reorient. We are fortunate in the United States that our population density is not as insane as China or Italy, and so many of us will not face the woes of the virus itself.
Instead, we have been blessed by God with time. He gave this to us to reevaluate where we are going, what we are doing. This is a forced rest, a time to assess what truly matters in life. We are now compelled to actually pay attention to our families, to the people we make a home with. We are, by necessity, showing more care and respect for the elderly around us. If instead we are spending as many hours as possible avoiding the reality of this, binge-watching Netflix and stuffing our faces with ice cream (the only sections of the grocery store still full are the produce sections…go figure), we’re doing it wrong.
We’re counting numbers right now. Not only is the United States performing its ten-year census, but we are counting the number of coronavirus cases. We are counting the fatalities. But are we accounting for our own souls?
Don’t take this time lightly. Don’t take it for granted. Now is our chance – to really look at ourselves and our choices, to care for the ones we’ve been ignoring. If the shutdown and quarantine last for the weeks ahead, how can we avoid self-reflection? Even when the quarantine ends, will we take our lessons with us?
Pesach is around the corner amid all the chaos. Generations ago, we were redeemed from Egypt by God, symbolic of the future redemption. Pesach’s proximity to this pandemic is another reminder of the redemption for which we are waiting.
Coronavirus is a symbol. A frightening, deathly symbol. Nevertheless, it is a warning: atone now. The king is coming. Are you ready?