Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei, 2020

Reflections and Reactions to the Health Crisis

This week we read the last two Parashiot from the Book of Sh’mot: Vayakhel and Pekudei. The names of both Parashiot speak of people. “Vayakhel Moshe” means “Moses convoked”, and “Ele Pekudei” means “These are the records”.

My first reaction is that they represent two completely different dimensions, which in light of the world crisis we are experiencing, I think it is important to share.

Today we are being bombarded by the media within the Pekudei dimension – the numbers and the records. How many infected, how many dead, how much the stocks fell, how many days without classes, how many months until this nightmare will end, etc. Numbers and quantities. I’m not saying this is not important. What I think is that if we just stay in this dimension, we will get sick.

It seems to me that we have to move to the dimension of the Vayakhel, which has the same root as Kehillah (Community) and Kahal (Congregation). This means, going beyond statistics, and getting closer to a more human dimension.

Social distance should be only physical, but it should not mean isolation. On the contrary, today we need to feel close, because this crisis will be overcome only if we face it together. Today it is important to be together as a Kehillah, as a Community, to call each other, pray, study, and keep in touch. Affection is essential for facing any crisis, and in this sense, we need mutual support.

My second reflection has to do with how we react. This is not the first epidemic in the history of humanity, and perhaps it is not the last. In ancient times there were plagues and epidemics that killed millions of people. Some historians point out that in the Middle Ages, the infamous Black Death killed close to half of the world’s population: 25 million people in Europe and maybe another 40 to 60 million in Asia and Africa.

Do you know who was blamed most of the time? Yes, the Jews. But COVID-19 does not discriminate. All of us are subject to the harm of the virus. Why blame Asian people because it started there? Or why blame a person who was infected as if he or she is a murderer?  What’s the point of looking for culprits? Is there any? Do we need to blame each other? Of course not! This is not the time to blame and divide, but to gather and unite.

Today is National Refugee Shabbat. We are participating with congregations all over the country in being conscious and aware of the suffering of the refugees.

At moments when we must turn inward to care for our internal community, we do not forget the needs of those outside our walls. In the middle of this crisis we remember that we were strangers in Egypt and we are conscious that all human beings are creatures of the same God. Xenophobia and discrimination are pests we have to take care of too.

And one last thought. At the end of the Parshah, the Torah tells us that the Shechina (the divine presence) was present in the tabernacle as a cloud. When we are inside a cloud, we do not see well, we do not understand well, we feel confused and vulnerable, and our illusion of omnipotence crumbles. Perhaps during those moments, we can recognize ourselves closer to the divine Presence, more human, more sensitive and more supportive.

Crisis can show the worst and the best of the human condition. Let´s try to find the Shechinah, that divine Presence, facing this crisis as God´s creatures. COVID-19 is contagious. So is love.