D’var Torah: Areivut and Covid 19

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 19 June 2020

There is an amazing text in the Bavli, the Babylonian Talmud, which speaks about the nature of the covenant that the Israelites made with God during their journeying.

The background is a statement from Rabbi Akiva – he maintains that each commandment given in Torah actually encompasses 48 mini-covenants. (This bit isn’t important, but the gist is that each commandment entails four different aspects – to learn, to teach, to guard and to do; each carries with it four attached conditions – a general and a specific blessing, and a general and a specific curse; and there were three different acceptances of the mitzvot in our narrative – therefore 4 x 4 x 3 = 48).

But then Rabbi Shimon ben Yehudah gets involved.  Each mitzvah, he says, was accepted by each of the Israelites – so each commandment actually involves 48 x the number of Israelites –
which, according to the book of Numbers was 603,550.  So, in fact, there were 28,970,400 covenants.

Ah yes, says Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, but every member of the community participated in each of the covenants of every other member.  So, in fact, there were 48 x 603,550 x 603,550 mini covenants – a total, for what it is worth of just under 17.5 trillion.

The rabbis, as we know from the Pesach Haggadah loved this kind of number play.

But underneath this particular piece of play is a key idea.  Rebbi, Yehudah HaNasi, the compiler of the Mishnah, is stating that every member of the community of Israel is connected to, responsible for every other member.  It is an expression of the interconnectedness of our lives, built into the defining moments at which we became community.

The idea is what is known as areivut – interconnectedness – as in the rabbinic maxim: kol yisrael areivim zeh ba-zeh – all of Israel are guarantors, mutually responsible, for one another.  It is an idea very different to the individualism that we see in modern society.

One feature of our experience of the last few months has been that our interdependence has never been clearer.  In the face of a public health crisis, what each one of us does has implications for each other.  To use another midrashic example, we are all aware that we cannot drill a hole under only our own seat in a boat without it sinking for everyone.   And that remains the case as we move through the life of this pandemic.  It is the reason, of course, that a well-constructed and effective track and trace system would have been so crucial to keeping all of us safe.

But, at the same time as our interdependence is clear, our sense of interconnectedness, of responsibility for one another has, perhaps, never been more strained.

After three months, each of us wants to live our lives; to have our personal reality return to normal as much as possible.  We saw it this week in the huge queues outside of shops, in the break down of social distancing we have seen around us; we have seen it in the variable take-up of wearing of masks, a perfect example of something that involves a minimal personal sacrifice for the good of others, but something which not everyone is willing to do, even in enclosed spaces.

And we will see it in the way that Places of Worship move to reopen.  In how cautious we are, how fast we move, what activities we privilege; who, if anyone, we are willing to leave behind.

Fundamental to our Jewish approach to reopening has to be this core idea of areivut.  The idea that each of us is bound into covenantal relationship not only with God but with everyone else too, a web of billions of connections.

Even in the face of the pressures each of us has personally encountered, we remain utterly responsible for one another.

Hard as it is after three months of this, it cannot be that only our individual Jewish life or needs matter, but we have to remember the responsibility each of us has for every other.