Torah in the Age of COVID-19 – Korah 5780

D'var Torah | Numbers

It is an unceasing wonder how the Torah remains eternally relevant, offering useful insights into current events. Though the Torah was given more than three thousand years ago, through its vigorous interpretation the words of the Torah are remarkable apropos. Consider how Jews should react to all the restrictions imposed as a result of COVID-19. Synagogues closed. Passover sedarim restricted. Funerals limited. Some Jews have found it so hard to obey governmental restrictions that they put their lives and the lives of others at risk. Here is what Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra, one of the classical medieval commentators, has to say.


Following the disastrous rebellion against Moses and Aaron by Korah and his supporters in which 250 rebels were incinerated (Numbers 16:35), the Israelites complain. Surprisingly, the complaint was not directed against the demagogues or their followers who undermined Israelite society, but against Moses and Aaron for killing their fellow Israelites (Num. 17:6)! It is at this juncture that God afflicts the Israelites with a plague (ketzef) intended to kill them all. Moses intervenes. He directs Aaron to prepare incense which somehow would cure the infected.


Ibn Ezra notes that the word for incense in Hebrew (k’toret) lacks the grammatical definitive, which is strange. The incense is well known. It is the incense that the Torah reserves only for use in sacred ritual (Ex. 30:37). So Ibn Ezra suggests that this incense was a different and profane incense, which would explain the absence of the definitive. Aaron was not supposed to take the incense, but other incense. Moses directed Aaron to use this different incense and not the one specified for sacred purposes. Rabbi Yehudah Leib Krinski, a modern interpreter of Ibn Ezra goes further. The plague, he explains, was an airborne infection that required an airborne disinfectant. So according to Rabbi Krinski, Ibn Ezra describes Moses reaction to the plague. Rather than offering prayers on behalf of the Israelites as Moses often does when God threatens to destroy them, Moses takes remedial action. He finds a prudent, efficacious response to the plague and directs Aaron to administer it. Interestingly, the Torah describes that Aaron “ran to the congregation” (Num. 17:12) to provide them with the cure. They did not come to him. Apparently, the community sheltered in place.


Amazingly, the Torah, as understood by its rabbinic interpreters, anticipated a pandemic. But there is more. The Torah comes to teach a crucial lesson: the health of the community lies in the administration of physical remedies and following restrictive orders.


Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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