I’ve now been in lockdown, quarantine, social isolation, call it what you will, for 40 days. I’m past the panic of the first weeks, I’m over the optimism that followed, that maybe it won’t be so bad, or so long. I’m dawning to the realization that 40 days may just be a taste of the 40 years to come.
There is little in the Torah more frustrating than the sin of the Golden Calf. Sure, it shocks the conscience that Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers, but 17-year old Joseph was a twerp, and anyway things turned out as predicted and predestined. But the Calf? The Calf didn’t have to happen. Nobody promised Abraham a Golden Calf.
One day. Just one stupid day. The midrash explains that Moses told the people he’d be gone for 40 days and nights. He intended them to count from the evening following his departure, but they counted from the morning of his leaving, and thus, in the short time between his expected arrival and his actual appearance, the people lost faith.
That story never really satisfied me. Numbers are wiggly, and the number 40, in the Torah, is among the wiggliest. The precision of the midrash’s tale certainly doesn’t match my own experiences. Year after year, I’d try to count the Omer, the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot, with little luck. I even ran an SMS reminder service called OmerBuddy to help complete the count. But most years I’d miss a day, or count a day tiwce, and lose track. When we entered quarantine, I began to count the days, marking them with a pencil on the wall in my office, like an inmate in solitary confinement – though with three kids aged 6-12, my confinement is anything but solitary.
Counting is hard. I discovered early on that four lines and slash, the way you see it in the comics, is a really dumb way to count weeks. I adjusted. Six lines and a slash. It helped to break the count into weeks: today is 40 days, which is 5 weeks and 5 days, to the COVID. Some days I missed adding my mark, and reconstructing it was trickier than expected. Over the last 40 days, we’ve all lost track of what day of the week it was sometimes. We’ve all learned, again, how easily the days blur, and how important Shabbat is to make a week out of our days. I do feel closer to our forebears, who lived these rhythms, whereas, until now, we simply observed them.
Moses climbs the mountain, leaving the Israelites in a kind of national distancing. Alone, in the desert, camped beneath a fiery mountain, away from all peoples and polities, they sat and waited. How long can a pregnant pause last before it gives birth? What are the economics of waiting for 40 days? In the Sinai desert there is little pasture, certainly not enough for the Israelite flocks. Did goat stocks plunge, as shepherds culled the oldest animals, and furloughed their herdsmen?
The Israelites left Egypt knowing that nothing would ever be the same. They saw the plagues, the geometric escalation of unimaginable tragedy. Like Wuhan. Like Lombardy. Like New York City. Isolation is one kind of test, but on the other end of this lockdown would be the start of a new world. Moses would descend from the mountatin with a new vision, a new Law, a way out. Two tablets that would cure the uncertainty.
After 40 days, the rumblings are unmistakable. Even while some foolhardy governors and mayors line up, Nachshon-like to be the first to re-open their states and cities, the most prudent governors are nonetheless also planning, weighing, and considering re-opening. Modern-day Aarons, preparing for a Golden Calf they know they ought not build. But how long can they hold? A sea of pent up anger, grief, frustration, and yearning continues to swell. People are losing loved ones, but also jobs and businesses – and even these seem to be details in the face of the loss of a whole world, a way of life, a sense of identity. Perhaps we will not be slaves again to the 9-5, the commuter train, and the college tuition. But what will we be? What should we enslave ourselves to? What might enslave us?
The festival of the Golden Calf is classicaly depicted as an orgiastic explosion, a Luciferian plunge into lust and sin, a people drunk on freedom and survival. But maybe we’re misreading the situation. It was not a celebration of life, or redemption. It was a cry of frustration. It was the damn of tears bursting. Abandoned by all certainty, alone and adrift, this was the party at the end of the world.
אלה אלהיך ישראל אשר העלוך מארץ מצרים
This is your god, Israel, who brought you out from the land of Egypt.
We’ve thrown all we had into the flames, and all we got was this stupid calf. Eat, drink, and make merry. Tomorrow we might still have nowhere to go, tomorrow we might still be no one, tomorrow we might just count 41.
It might be worth asking what we’re hoping for. I mean besides for a treatment, a vaccine, an end to the plague. It might be worth thinking about those tablets, and what we should write on them. God already wrote them out twice, and my guess is that God won’t be writing them out a third time. The world ahead is viscerally scarier than the world behind, but it’s not, in broad terms, much deadlier. COVID19 is not an extermination-level threat. We’ve become as numerous as the sand and the stars, and perhaps that are not enough graves in Egypt to contain our dead. But it’s still only 1% or 2% or 3% of us who might fall before the crown. Climate change, environmental collapse, and nuclear weapons are the horsemen of our Apocalypse, not this pestilence.
Yes, our world is changed. But we can’t afford to waste this crisis. The tablets? They’re going to have to say much the same thing as before. Reject false idols and insist on truth. Restore dignity, honor and respect in our leaders and our institutions. Rebuild a just society and reject consumption and greed as guiding values. And don’t forget to count each week, to remember it, and to mark it. Or you’ll go mad.