Yom ha-Sho'ah, more figures with personal reflections, a teaching from the Talmud

April 21, 2020

 

Good morning, 

 

A.  Today we observe Yom ha-Sho'ah -- Holocaust Memorial Day.  Today is also the 12th day of the Omer.  

 

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, communal Yom ha-Sho'ah gatherings, some which were scheduled for Sundays, were cancelled this year.  To memorialize, some light a yahrzeit candle, read a book or articles about the Sho'ah, and recite Psalms.  There is abundant material on the internet.

 

Yom ha-Sho'ah was not without its controversy.  Some observant Jews wanted to commemorate it on Tish'a b-Av as part of several national tragedies -- the destruction of the Temples and the accompanying disaster of war -- death, injury, economic devastation and social disruption -- and included everything from assigning the Torah's episode about the scouts to the Spanish Inquisition and expulsion from Spain in 1492.  The first observance was actually on the 10th of Tevet, a fast day commemorating the initial siege against Jerusalem. 

 

Although still other dates were considered, 27 Nissan was chosen by the Israeli Knesset because it fell between the end of Pesach and Yom ha-Aztma'ut (Israel Independence Day) -- semi-officially in 1951 and formalized in 1959.  (If 27 Nissan falls on Friday or Sunday, it is moved so as not to encroach on pre-Shabbat or post-Shabbat activity; 27 Nissan cannot, by the rules of the calendar, fall on Shabbat itself. ) 

 

B.  The last figures I noted were April 8 -- just before Pesach.  13 days later we can compare.

 

                                   Reported Infected                                    Reported Deaths

 

                   US                Israel                World                  US                Israel                World

 

April 8        400,539          9,404                1,447,847          12,857             72                   83,409

April 21      792,938        13,833                2,503,412          42,518           181                 171,809

 

In the past 13 days, the number of US cases of COVID-19 has doubled, while the number of deaths from coronavirus has nearly quadrupled.  In part, the number of cases has increased due to further transmission, but also due to increased testing.  The percentage of number of deaths has exceeded the percentage of infections, in part because it reflects those infected weeks ago who have died, and in part due to now assigning probable cases to COVID-19, when previously they were not assigned as due to COVID-19.

 

In Israel, the percentage of increase of reported cases over the 13 days was under 50%, while the death rate more than doubled.  However, the raw numbers are relatively small: 

 

Israel's population is now about 9 million compared to the US's 325 million. The US's population is more than 35 times that of Israel.  Israel's deaths from coronavirus, when multiplied to match the US's population, would total a little more than 6,000 (compared to the US's 42,000+).   So too, in terms of the number of reported cases, Israel's would be 484,000 compared to the US's 793,000.  Americans have been hit harder compared to Israel, and vice-versa.

 

The news reveals the predicable new and increasing divide in our country, which will likely intensify.  

 

The maximalist position of those who legitimately fear the coronavirus would not open the society as long as anyone remains vulnerable.  A position close to this would keep the lockdown until there is total testing and/or an effective vaccine.  We are nowhere near either and due to testing protocols that any vaccine is (a) not harmful and (b) truly effective, it would take at least a year to a year and a half.  Complete testing would require not only 325 million tests and its manufacture and administration, but also re-testing due to possible exposure after the initial test -- that might mean at least 3 tests per person and 1 billion tests.  There are even questions about the effectiveness of some of the tests we have manufactured.

 

The maximalist position of the other side is that we must open now. Economics matter not merely as an abstract, but for people's lives.  Some businesses and jobs may never recover and the longer we wait, the more will die.  And there is death and illness and domestic issues associated with job loss and business loss.  Moreover, although some may think of government payments as "free money," it is surely not.  It has enormous consequences. In addition, the government is spending, as nearly all think it must, but tax revenues to state and local governments are falling as well.  How will the social services that the poor depend upon be provided?

 

Finally, there are civil liberty debates.  While most accept the government's authority to enact legislation in emergencies, there are limits.  Moreover, many measures are being ordered by governors without the legislature's legislation.  What can the government do, and what can it not do?

 

In the end governmental action requires an accepting population.  Like it or not, people's patience is limited.   If too many being defying orders, legitimate or not, a power struggle may ensue, each representing an importance voice or voices, but one which is likely to overwhelm the government.  It cannot arrest or prevent overwhelming numbers.  

 

If we are unable to test everyone or nearly everyone, then a new risk level will probably have to be assumed.  Although everyone is a potential carrier, the number of deaths among the elderly, especially those with "underlying conditions" is greatest, and they are the most vulnerable.  But those who are not seniors have much, much smaller death rates.  A generational conflict is brewing as well.

 

So we return to the numbers:  Here we have had 42,518 deaths, nearly 800,000 reported cases out of a population of 325 million.  That translates to 2+ cases per every 1,000 people; and 1+ deaths for every 10,000 people. Now, these numbers are with broadly practiced, though not total, physical distancing.  What risks are we prepared to assume?  

 

 

C.  Talmud (BT Berachot 5a)

 

Our Sages were not scientists, although they used the science of their era.  They provided a perspective of how we deal with our lives in a meaningful way, and through faith in God and Torah, how best to achieve it.

 

Yom-Sho'ah and COVID-19 remind us of suffering, ours and others, which pervades human life even in "normal" times.

 

The Talmud:  R Levi b Chama said in the name of R Shimon b Lakish:  One should always strive to cause one's yetser ha-ra (evil inclination) to tremble via one's yetser ha-tov (good inclination) as it is written in Psalm 4:5 -- "Tremble and sin no more." If he succeeds (through this dynamic), good, if not let him study Torah.  If he succeeds, good, if he does not succeed, he should recite the Shema.  If he succeeds, good, if he does not succeed, he should think about his day of death.

 

...

 

R Shimon b Lakish said:  Whoever studies Torah his afflictions will separate from him.   R Yochanan cited this verse (Exodus 15:26) "If you will heed the Lord your God, diligently doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer."  

 

Rava said (but some say it was Rav Chisda):  If a person sees that afflictions have come to him, he should search his deeds ... if he searched and did not find anything wrong, he should connect (them to neglecting the study of Torah)  ... if he connected (them to neglecting the study of Torah) but he did not find (that he neglected Torah study) then surely the afflictions are out of (God's) love.  

 

Later on the Talmud cites Sages -- R Chiya and R Yochanan -- who were afflicted who said that neither the afflictions nor their "reward" were welcome.  

 

My Explanation:  The first segment is a prescription for overcoming our worst sides (yetser ha-ra) in life in general -- to strengthen our best side (yetser ha-tov), through effort, study of Torah, reciting the Shema (affirming faith), and thinking about death, our limited time, as a way to motivate us to live a better life with the time we have.

 

The second segment specifically addresses afflictions with a similar prescription.  It does not necessarily suggest that all afflictions are punishments, as some would read it, but rather to look first within, embrace Torah learning even if you have been good, and consider the possibility of "afflictions of love" -- sometimes love is painful in ways we cannot readily see.  

 

Finally, two Sages didn't like the pain, even if reward might be a part of the package.

 

Lesson:  We do not have to like what is happening to us, but we can: 

 

    1.  use our time wisely -- asking "How can I be better? What can I do with this time?"  

    2.  We can take an opportunity to learn Torah, deepen our faith, help someone else.  

    3.  We can even translate that pain as God's love -- doing for us what we could not do on our own -- political co-operation that seemed impossible, some mitigation of climate change, some caring for others and appreciation of people who were under appreciated (health care workers) or even subject to harsh criticism (police).  

 

Study the passages and share your constructive insights with me at  rabbi.gordon@yahoo.com  

 

Be safe, be well ... Shalom.

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