Shabbat Shalom: Angels on the Head of a Pin
Picture for a moment the tip of a needle, its metal stalk ending in a precise spike. Now picture the microscopic, barbed orb known as COVID-19. And then imagine—and perhaps this is an impossibility—one billion of these hostile COVID particles fitting on the tip of that needle. One billion particles so small, so ambulant, and so devastating.
Our Torah portion this week, Ekev, describes a test. “God hath led thee those forty years in the wilderness, that He might afflict thee, to put thee to the test, to know what was in thy heart, whether thou wouldst keep His commandments, or no. And He afflicted thee, and suffered thee to hunger, and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not, neither did thy fathers know.” Imagine wandering the desert with no food, hunger a constant din in your head, in your children’s heads. And then imagine that each morning manna appears.
A noted biblical scholar described manna as symbolic of the dependence of people on their maker and the trial of hunger as the test of that relationship: what are our limits? What are the limits of our faith?
What keeps coming to mind as I—as we all—weather this atavistic storm is a remarkable book by Matt Richtel. An Elegant Defense masterfully portrays the complexity of our auto-immune system and weaves together the stories of four people whose lives are thrown into chaos when that system goes haywire. Dr. Fauci of present-day fame is a prominent figure in the book, and the author is married to a former student of mine, who is from Denver.
In light of Matt’s book, one might think of our bodies’ ability to fight COVID as manna. Consider that most who become ill will survive thanks to our immune systems, our bodies will adapt, and our scientists will develop a defense to the virus. This elides the scope of devastation and personal loss we are enduring to be sure, but I find it miraculous that we have the capacity to devise our own figurative manna.
We go to sleep each night, and we wake up. We cut our hand, and it heals. We live in a veritable miasma of invisible bodies whose sole purpose is to breach our defenses for their own survival. And yet we survive. We thrive and we multiply. Humankind faced polio and defeated it. So too will we defeat COVID-19. In the Bible, there is divinity in the manna, and there is likewise divinity in our body’s ability to meet this challenge and in our capacity to imagine both the problem and the solution.