D’Var Torah: Notes from the pandemic 

 

On April 1, a mere three weeks after the state of Israel started social distancing to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Israeli singer Ishay Ribo released a song about the pandemic. The song, titled “Keter Melucha,” charts the early stages of the pandemic on a Jewish timescale: the sequence of Torah readings, or parshiyot, that we read from late February through late March of this year. Ribo sings in Hebrew:  

From [the Torah portion of] ‘Ki Tissa’ [March 14] to [the Torah portion of] Vayakheil’ [March 21] 

The world stops gathering [ . . . ] 

From [the Torah portion of]Pekudei’ [March 21] to [the Torah portion of] ‘Vayikra’ [March 28] 

We are all in the same boat 

The song, which has over 3 million views on Ribo’s Youtube page, contrasts the predictable cadence of the weekly parshiyot with the momentum of a virus that moves entirely of its own accord. In so doing, Ribo, through use of a uniquely Jewish and religious idiom, expresses the anguish that we all feel regarding the way that the virus has imposed itself upon the rhythm of our lives. “What do you want us to learn from this?” Ribo calls out to God in the refrain. 

I thought of Ribo’s song while reviewing the first chapter of the Torah portion of “Masei,” which we read on July 18 and which recounts the travels of the Israelites during their journey through the wilderness. The Israelites, after all, were travelling on a path that was thoroughly disorienting. The text states (Numbers 33:2): “And Moses recorded the starting points of their various marches as directed by God,” and then proceeds to list the 42 starting and stopping points on their journey: from A to B, from B to C, and so on. They camped at times for a single night, and at times for a period of years – all without explanation or forewarning.  A journey that should have taken 11 days took nearly 40 years. They were travelling with divine guidance and with a clear destination, but without a sense of perspective of their time or of their travels. We can forgive them for asking, as Ribo does, what God intended to teach them through their experience. 

What might the Torah be teaching us with the inclusion of this passage, which contains little elaboration and seems to be lacking in religious and literary quality? Rashi, the classic medieval French commentator, suggests that the passage would have value for the Israelites after they reached their destination. Rashi notes (quoting the Midrash) that the chapter can be compared to a parable of a king who took his son to a distant land to cure him of an illness. Upon their return home, the king reminisces to his son about the stages of their journey: “Here we slept, here we caught cold, here you had a headache ...” Rashi suggests that this Torah passage, when read by the Israelites in future times, would prompt them to remember their travails and give them some perspective on their journey. God, a paternal figure in this parable, asks Moses to preserve the travel details with the hope that the record would help the Israelites make sense of their journey after the fact. 

In this age of pandemic, Rashi’s characterization of God as protector can seem remote to us. We are distant, too, from the retrospective view that would enable us to understand our journey. And yet, the Torah urges us to make note of the details. Write this down, God says to Moses: history is happening. You can journal or write a letter to a friend about your experience during the pandemic. You can document your experience by sending materials to “Preserving Quarantine History,” an initiative of the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee. Can we take comfort in the fact that someone, someday, will help us understand our present moment? 

Ribo draws his title from a joyous liturgical poem that evokes a future when the world will be united in celebration of God. He challenges God to help him see toward this future as the days and weeks of pandemic pass him by. The question of “what we should learn from this” will be processed for years to come. The Torah gives hope that future generations will glean some meaning, however fragmented, from the records of our profound disorientation. 

Daniel Fleischman is vice president of housing and residential services at Jewish Family Services, a not-for-profit dedicated to providing affordable housing and supportive services to diverse populations in Milwaukee. He lives in Glendale with his wife, Jodie Honigman, and their two children.