On the Eve of Shabbat, we received a government mailing containing documents that we were required to fill out and send back to the Census Bureau. The connection between the Census and the plague was not lost on me. The Torah portion we read last Shabbat, Ki Tisa. It begins with the story of the census:
When you count the children of Israel according to their numbers, let each one give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.” (Exodus 30:12)
This verse, linking the census with a plague, was uncanny in view of the COVID-19—Coronavirus pandemic—the modern-day plague, in the midst of which we find ourselves today.
Interestingly, the word “count” in the verse above is not the literal translation of the verse. The original Hebrew, tisa, literally means “lift the heads [of the children of Israel].” Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in the name of the Arizal:
This [lifting heads] refers to the returning lights [of Keter], this being the allusion of the hair [on back of the head].” (Sefer Halikutim and Taamei Hamitzvot, Parshat Tisa.)
In Kabbalah, the hair on the back of the head is a euphemism for protecting partzufim (Divine Visages) from the kelipot (husks) that tend to attach to the back of the partzuf. In this case, Partzuf Arich Anpin (Long Face or Macroprosopus), which is Keter, is symbolized by the skull, with the hair on the back of the head protecting Arich Anpin from the kelipot. Kelipah (which is the Kabbalistic term for “evil”) is the ultimate parasite—it has nothing of its own and can only exist when it steals the lifeforce from kedusha (holiness). A virus is a perfect metaphor for the kelipa—a virus is not a living cell; it is just a strand or pair of strands of DNA or RNA (Coronavirus, is a single-stranded RNA) that cannot replicate on its own. It must infect a living cell to steal its nutrients and to hijack its replication machinery to force it to replicate the virus. Thus, the kelipot, from which the hair on the back of the head of Arich Anpin is meant to protect, hints at the virus.
Moreover, the “lifting heads” refers to the ohr hozer—the reflected lights (Netzach and Hod) of the Sefirah of Keter. Keter means “crown.” The word “corona” means “aura” or “crown,” as it comes from the Latin corona “garland,” “chaplet,” or “diadem,” which in turn is derived from Ancient Greek ‘κορώνη’ (korōnè, “garland, wreath”). There you have it—this Torah portion hints not just at a virus in general but specifically at the Coronavirus!
As the Coronavirus epidemic turned into a pandemic, it is nothing short of a plague. The Torah portion Ki Tisa speaks twice of the plagues. At the very beginning, in the verse (3:12) quoted above, “…then there will be no plague among them when they are counted.”
While this verse speaks about a census (I discussed this in my essay, Half-Shekel – Metaphor for Entanglement), in a broader sense, it teaches that charity saves from a plague. Indeed, charity saves from death. (See Mishlei 10:2; Shabbat 156a.)
Later in this parshah, the Torah says:
Then the Lord struck the people with a plague, because they had made the calf that Aaron had made.” (Exodus 30:35)
Today, money became our “golden calf.” It may be worthwhile asking ourselves today: Do I worship money? Do I put money before my family, my community, before God?
Idolatry does not always come in such obvious forms as in worshiping an idol made of wood, metal, or stone. Often, it is much more subtle. For example, attributing to God any human characteristics is making an idol in our own image, instead of worshiping God who created us in His image.
I am not at all suggesting that the current epidemic is a punishment for our sins—far be it from me! Nobody knows why this plague came upon us. However, doing teshuvah (repentance) always helps, particularly in trying times like these.
We just read the story of Purim in the Book of Esther. What did Jew do when they learned of the terrible decree against them? They fasted, and they repented. And it helped! The situation was reversed and turned into gladness and joy. May our present situation as well turn into gladness and joy as during the story of Purim! May the nega (“plague”) turn into oneg (“joy”).
The Baal Shem Tov taught us that we must derive a lesson in our Divine service from every circumstance in which we find ourselves. What lessons can we learn from this pandemic?
As mentioned above, the “corona” means crown. In Kabbalah and Chasidut, the Sefirah of Keter (“Crown”) is a manifestation of the Divine Will. The juxtaposition of the word “crown” and the word “virus,” as in Coronavirus, suggests that perhaps we put our will before the will of God. Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) teaches:
Do His will as though it were your will, so that He will do your will as though it were His. Set aside your will in the face of His will, so that he may set aside the will of others for the sake of your will.” (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4)
The Kabbalistic commentary on the first verse in this Torah portion hints at the cure:
All this applies to the inner light (ohr pnimi) that enters Keter. But the Kings [of Tohu, who died] issued before these states of judgment. Because they were not scented they died. But these, which were scented, endured. That is why the must ascend (ki tisa) to be scented.” (Sefer Halikutim and Taamei Hamitzvot, Parshat Tisa.)
I see here a hint at how to endure this plague: sublimate your inner will (which becomes “scented,” i.e., rectified, as it enters Keter) to the will of God.
The Haftorah we read last Shabbat also speaks of this when it says:
And I will put My spirit within you and bring it about that you will walk in My statutes and you will keep My ordinances and do [them].”(Ezekiel 36:27)
The meaning of this prophecy is clear—at the end of days, God will place in us the will to do His will, as it is expressed in the mitzvot of the Torah.
A plague is always a manifestation of severe judgment. According to the Arizal, the ascending lights of Netzach and Hod are two states of gevurah (“judgment”), which are sweetened by their ascent to Keter. Furthermore, in the story of the census, when God instructs Moses about the donation of half-shekel, He says:
The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel…” (Exodus 30:15)
Rabbi Chaim Vital writes that this verse hints at the scales of judgment.
From another perspective, this virus is a great equalizer—we are all equal in the face of the plague, no matter if you a president, a prime minister, or a simple person, whether you are rich or poor. It is a reminder that we are all humans, and we are all vulnerable. We must learn to see past our differences—political, racial, social, whatever divides us—and see our shared humanity. And, in fact, this epidemic brought out the best in us—in every community, people help each other and care for each other with no regard to social status, religion, or race. And together, we shall persevere! Let us hope that this sense of community persists past this crisis.
This Torah portion, Ki Tisa, also speaks of the recipe for making ketoret—incense offerings. Ketoret has the power to halt a plague. When the Jews were punished for the Golden Calf with a plague, Moshe instructed Aharon to take a shovel with the burning ketoret and separate between the living and the dead, thereby halting the plague. In fact, the Alter Rebbe (Ba’al HaTanya—the founder of the Chabad Chasidut) states that reciting the chapter of ketoret from this Torah portion with Targum and Rashi’s commentary protects against plague.
In a public address on the occasion of his birthday, on Yud Alef Nisan 1982, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, said that a new disease, “which has never been seen before,” was coming, for which there would be no known cure and, “therefore, a new cure is required.” While the Rebbe encouraged scientists to “greatly exert” themselves in seeking new medications for the forthcoming disease, the Rebbe also shared that his saintly father-in-law, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, the previous Rebbe, revealed the “new remedy” of this generation – a mandate to study the daily portion of the parshah of the week: on the first day of the week to study the first aliyah (reading of the Torah), on the second day, the second aliyah, and so on. May the merit of learning the Torah in accordance with the Rebbe’s instructions—each daily portion on the corresponding day of the week—protect us from this and all other diseases, new and old!
There is no vaccine yet against the Coronavirus; and, for now, there are no medications to cure it. The only thing we can do today is practice “social distancing.” To counter this chilling distancing, we need to reconnect with each other in thought. As the previous Rebbe said, thinking positively about your friend can physically change the friend’s circumstances for the better.
In the meantime, the CDC, health officials, rabbis, and community leaders recommend, if not complete quarantine, at the very least, social distancing. As the Prophet said:
Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee; hide thyself for a little moment, until the indignation be overpast. (Isaiah 26:20)
In the Jewish tradition, we promote togetherness, not isolation. We pray together in a minyan; we live together in communities built around synagogues, we learn Torah together in a Bet HaMedrash and hang out together. The only time when we practice “social distancing” is during Passover, when the Chabad custom is to eat only in one’s own home. This “social distancing” lasts for eight days (seven in Israel), culminating with the Seuadat Mashiach, the “Moshiach Banquet”—a grand communal meal at the conclusion of Passover, instituted by the Baal Shem Tov. May it be so now, that this plague vanish immediately and the social distancing is replaced by the celebration of togetherness, culminating with the banquet celebrating the revelation of Moshiach!
 Translation by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, Apple from the Orchard. (2006: Thirty Seven Books, Malibu, Cal.)
 Translation by Rabbi Moshe Wisnefsky, Ibid.