Torah with Star

The pandemic has laid bare the brutal hierarchy of human life our society is built on.

This week’s portion is the first in the Book of Numbers, known also as Bamidbar/In the Wilderness. The English name is drawn from the census of the Israelites that takes place in the desert.

Why, at the beginning of a book chronicling the dramatic ups and downs of a people in formation, are we subjected to a tedious and technical census?

Today, we are indeed in the wilderness: The coronavirus has catapulted us into uncharted territory. Like the Israelites, we find ourselves counting. Counting days of isolation. Counting 6 feet apart. Counting risk factors. Counting precious dollars lost from retirement funds. That’s just on the personal level; what about the various collectives of which we are a part? Our organizations are counting money in reserve; our communities are counting lives lost; our society is counting months until a vaccine. 

On a deeper level, another sort of counting is going on. The shutdown has forced society to ask: Who counts? Who is disposable? Whose lives are worthy of protection? We’ve witnessed a wave of strikes from those deemed “essential workers;” from Instacart to Amazon, workers are trying desperately to bring attention to lack of adequate pay and protection. The pandemic has laid bare the brutal hierarchy of human life our society is built on.

Perhaps the biblical census serves to undermine the logic of slavery in addition to the inhumanity of our own social order.  

Rabbi Shai Held writes: “R. Isaac Arama (1420-1494) asks why all the seemingly dull details of the census are necessary. Did God not know the number of Israelites encamped in the desert? Taking account of them one by one, R. Arama argues, serves to teach that each one has individual worth, and is not just a member of the collective. ‘They were all equal in stature,’ Arama writes, ‘and yet the stature of each one was different”’ (Akeidat Yitzhak, Bamidbar, 72). 

His commentary pushes us to consider how our various choices reflect an underlying assessment of a person’s worth. For those of us with economic privilege, will we go back to ignoring and exploiting those who pick and package and deliver our food? Or will we take this opportunity for cheshbon nefesh (soul accounting) and reevaluate our conceptions of whose labor and lives are valuable? And will we translate that new understanding into action, like joining Detroit Jews for Justice’s long-standing involvement in the effort to guarantee paid sick time for all workers?

Throughout Passover, communities gathered online for Hallel, the festival service of praise. The morning I led the prayers, I was stopped in my tracks when I came across the verse from Psalm 118: “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone.” A beautiful thought that always seemed aspirational at best suddenly felt within reach.

Perhaps we can emerge from this pandemic with transformed consciousness and accompanying practice, that affirm the inherent dignity and holiness of every human being. Ken yehi ratzon, may it be so.

Ariana Alpert is the director of Detroit Jews for Justice and the rabbi of Congregation T’chiyah in Oak Park.