As you well know, numerology plays an important role in our lives. Whether it is the day or time of the day you were born, the bris eight days later for a male, the bat and bar mitzvahs at the ages of 12 and 13, respectively, and so on.
Through all our years in school, we lived by the grades we were able to achieve, which, in some cases, genuinely determined the direction we would take in our future professional lives.
I ambled my way through math and vividly recall a late Saturday night when I was in eleventh grade, sitting with a math tutor, when a lightbulb went off in my head and I had a breakthrough moment while studying for the trigonometry Regents exam. I had struggled with grasping the relationship between angles and distances, etc. Miraculously, after that late-night epiphany, I did well on that exam.
I spent four full years in Brooklyn College, received very few As (I know that is not surprising), mostly Bs and B+s, and finished with a three-point-something GPA. A rabbi who taught in a girls’ school once shared that some of his students cry when they receive a 95 on a test. He also taught in boys’ schools and observed that when some boys score a 50% on a test, often their reaction is, “Hey, I knew half the work.”
After college, the numbers outside our annual income and our bank balances did not mean that much. Over the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the numbers that played the most defining roles in my life to date.
About eight weeks ago, I suddenly discovered that my sense of taste and smell had disappeared. At that point, it was not widely known that this could be one of the symptoms of the coronavirus. Through the good offices of my local doctor I took a swab test, which came back positive. I was both concerned and relived that it had occurred and was wondering what the odyssey would be like.
I can only say that in retrospect, inasmuch that it is startling how little our doctors and the people in the field knew about whether that would be the extent of it or whether it could potentially worsen. At the time, I was thinking that I was glad I got it and could begin the process of getting through it so that I hopefully would not be able to get it again. The science on that aspect of the virus is still inconclusive. Medicine’s foundation is based on hypotheses, theories, guesswork, and the process of elimination. But the news media wants everything to be 100%, and if you cannot reach that unreachable point you are stuck being accused of endangering people’s lives.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve had friends who died or were critically ill over these last few weeks. I know many others who were sick at home for weeks with very difficult symptoms. Sadly, I thought that there was a bad time and even a good time to take ill. The doctors were learning fast, but unfortunately just not fast enough for many.
As to my personal experience, I feel silly complaining about not being able to taste or smell anything, but, be that as it may, the experience lasted about 12 days until slowly but surely I sensed it gradually improving. A few days after that, I talked my doctor into another swab test and this time, a few agonizing days later, the result came back negative. As they say, the virus had been resolved. At least that is the tentative thought process for now.
At that point I applied online to be tested for antibodies at Mount Sinai Hospital. When you test positive for antibodies that means you definitely had the virus at some point. I know a few people who believed they had symptoms of the virus, were never tested, and later took the antibody test that told them that they had no antibodies. In other words, they never had the virus.
About three weeks later, last Friday, Mount Sinai called to say that I tested positive for antibodies and that the number I scored, so to speak, was 960. They told me that the minimum required to donate blood plasma that can hopefully provide a cure for those who are ill is 320. All of a sudden these are important numbers.
In terms of donating plasma, the person on the phone said that they had a list of 1,500 people who qualify to donate blood plasma and that they’re in the 500s presently. That means that there are 1,000 people ahead of me. I think we need more facilities to accommodate these much-needed donations.
Here are some other thoughts about numbers. Remember a few weeks ago when Governor Cuomo was saying that New York alone would need over 40,000 ventilators and 130,000 hospital beds? At the time of these prognostications, New York had about 8,000 ventilators and a few more than 53,000 hospital beds.
Cuomo’s estimation was wildly off the mark. He should be embarrassed by his performance, but because he is glib and can talk for hours without a teleprompter, he is now considered one of the most talented and leading Democrats in the country. A news commentator recently observed that Cuomo has presided over the worst healthcare debacle with his nursing home policy in New York that resulted in the deaths of over 6,000 people so far. For that policy he is being praised and often mentioned as a possible replacement candidate for president if Joe Biden cannot make it out of his basement in Delaware.
His nursing home policy was an unmitigated disaster — and this is an extreme understatement. Almost 30% of the New Yorkers who lost their lives were elderly nursing home residents who were infected when Cuomo issued an executive order directing nursing homes to take COVID-19 patients from hospitals or jeopardize their operating licenses. Turns out that this was a colossal error based on absolute ignorance. The governor is cool about it now, but he should have to pay a political price at some point.
What we are enduring and the cost in lives in all states and communities around the country is staggering. I think that as tragic as this has been, if we are committed to adhering to the data and the science, it is important to place these numbers in proper context. Just to reiterate, the loss of life and the suffering is incalculable, but for a moment let’s take a step back and look at the numbers.
At the height of the pandemic over these last eight weeks, the highest one-day total of deaths nationally was 2,584 over one 24-hour period. Right now, while over 83,000 people around the United States have succumbed to COVID or COVID-related illnesses, it is still too early for COVID to have its own category, though that will happen soon.
In last weekend’s Wall Street Journal, The Numbers column by Jo Craven McGinty analyzed other categories of death for various causes that occur every day here in the U.S. From January through April, according to Bob Andersen, the chief of the mortality statistics branch of the National Center for Health Statistics, 230,000 people have died from heart disease. Over 200,000 deaths were the result of cancer, 61,000 from chronic lower respiratory diseases, 58,000 from automobile and other accidents, and 52,000 from strokes. Other causes of death include kidney disease, Alzheimer’s, influenza, and suicides.
Around the world, by the way, 150,000 people die every day. The flip side of that is that each day, 360,000 children are born around the globe.
Pointing out these statistics will not help anyone who is mourning the loss of a loved one or navigating their way through the illness. But the experts are always talking about the data and the numbers, and that is what this is.
Here’s another number that was important to me a long time ago: 355. During the Vietnam War, back in the 1960s and 1970s, the federal government developed a draft lottery in order to select who got to go there and fight — and, often, die. Every day of the calendar year was assigned a number. Then those numbers were drawn randomly from a pile. For men born January 1, 1944 to December 31, 1950, the lower your number, the sooner you would be called up for service.
There were also classifications on your eligibility to join the military and fight in the war in Southeast Asia. If you were a prime candidate, you were classified as 1A. If you had a medical problem, you were assigned a 4F classification. If you were studying in yeshiva you qualified for a 4D, which meant you were a divinity student.
This resulted in the creation of what was known back then as “draft-dodging yeshivas,” but that is a story for another day. I knew guys who were not in yeshiva who drew a low number and made a beeline for the yeshiva that would probably save their lives.
My friend from high school, Chaim, drew a 5. His birthday was July 23. My birthday was July 22 and my draft lottery number was 355, with only 11 dates after mine. In 1969 fewer than 200 dates were drafted. I took the 1A classification and stayed safe.
Just for your information, 57,000 mostly young men were killed on the battlefields of Vietnam; about a third of them were drafted. The idea was to stop the spread of communism. It was ridiculous and a waste of precious human lives.
For now, the question is if the country can begin steps to open up businesses and continue to battle the virus at the same time.
The numbers are vital on many levels. In Bechukosai, the second of this week’s Torah readings, Hashem tells us that if we follow His direction and observe his statutes, He will be with us to the point that, as it applies to the enemies of Israel, “Five of you will be able to chase away one hundred, and a hundred of you will be able to chase away ten thousand.” There is an obvious imbalance in these numbers, and Rashi comments that this is what Jews can accomplish when they are united in higher numbers.
At the end of the process, that is precisely what it takes. That is true of many things that unity can achieve, and that is perhaps what we are seeing play itself out directly in front of us. We are all in this together, united by the numbers if nothing else.