A Shabbat Message for Memorial Day in the time of COVID-19

Posted on May 22, 2020 by Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck

Our parashah for this Shabbat, B’midbar, has extraordinary resonance for this moment in our lives.

B’midbar, which means “in the wilderness,” describes the beginning of our people’s difficult journey of 40 years through the desert to the Promised Land.

Along the way they encounter many challenges. They experience fear, anxiety, frustration, uncertainty, and deprivation. Yet, they endure. As a community, they make it through. Not easily, not without loss, and not in a linear fashion. There are many twists and turns, highs and lows, along the way.

As the parashah opens, our people have already had a taste of what will lie ahead. They have experienced hunger, thirst, and deadly scorpions. They have also experienced deliverance at the sea and stood at Sinai to receive the Torah.

Now, as they are about to move on to fulfill their destiny – to return to the land of their fathers and mothers – they pause to take stock and assess their strengths. They take a census – the counting that gives this fourth book of the Torah its English name: the Book of Numbers.

There are many things one could say about this counting, both good and bad. But on the eve of Memorial Day, in the midst of this pandemic, the insight of the great Chassidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev stands out.

He notes that the final tally of the Israelites of 603,550 is the same as the number of letters in the Torah.

What happens if one letter of a Torah is missing or broken? The Torah is not kosher and should not be used.

An entire sefer torah is broken if even one letter is missing.

The same is true of us, says Levi Yitzchak. If a single soul among our people is lost or broken, we are not whole.

On this Memorial Day, as we pause to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, we are in the midst of another kind of a war – one that is also exacting great sacrifice and loss of life.

As we remember all those who died that we might live, it is incumbent upon us to consider that the tally of the fallen is not just a number. Each one was an individual, a story, someone’s precious son or daughter, husband, wife, partner, friend. A face, a smile, a precious soul.

This coming Thursday night and Friday we will celebrate chag ha-shavuot, the Festival of Weeks, also known as z’man matan torateinu, the time of the giving of the Torah, which includes two elements that connect us to this Memorial Day and these days of COVID-19.

The first is our custom of saying Yizkor. We honor the memory of those we’ve loved and lost by pausing to remember. In so doing, we keep them alive in our hearts and grant them a measure of immortality.

The second custom is to hold a tikkun leil Shavuot – to study Torah on the eve of Shavuot. The word tikkun means repair, as in tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Our losses diminish the world. Like the missing letter of a Torah scroll that leaves it broken, the loss of even one life, one precious soul, leaves our world broken and in need of repair.

As we prepare to welcome this Shabbat of Memorial Day weekend, let us remember those who gave their lives that we might live – the women and men who served in the military, and all those who have given their lives while caring for others during this pandemic. Let us recall that each was unique and of infinite value – each one had a name, a face, and was a precious soul.

And let us resolve to do some act of tikkun – some an act of kindness, of charity, of love – to bring a measure of healing and restore wholeness to our world.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Arnold S. Gluck