Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
What do we do when we find ourselves in an ongoing, high-anxiety environment which is also a “reliable information desert”? This is the Wilderness we have found ourselves in as the COVID-19 virus has spread to become a worldwide pandemic. When we are scared and do not have enough real information to understand our predicament or the best paths forward, we do what we have always done. We grasp at straws, and if we can’t find any, we make do with whatever we can find and pin our hopes upon that. In other words, as our Religious School Administrator Jen Smith reminds us, we build a Golden Calf.
In this week’s parasha, God calls Moses to the top of Mount Sinai to receive the tablets. The people stayed at the base of the mountain and waited …
… and waited
… and waited
… and waited
Almost 40 days passed, and there was no word or sign from Moses. Fear set in, and perhaps even a little panic:
“And the people saw that Moses lagged in coming down the mountain, and the people assembled against Aaron and said to him, ‘Rise up, make us gods that will go before us, for this man Moses who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him.’” [Ex. 32:1]
Yet, Moses had not abandoned the people, and more importantly, neither had God. Fear, uncertainty, impatience, anxiety – when combined together these emotions can lead us down a dark path.
Unlike the Israelites in the Wilderness, we do have some knowledge: we have both science and Torah. When it comes to the COVID-19 outbreak, we need to pay close attention to what the scientists and medical authorities say, and we should follow their advice and execute their protocols. Although there is much we still do not understand about the virus, our knowledge is growing daily, and we already have the means to keep ourselves safer through “social” distancing and personal hygiene (hand washing, etc.) We also have Torah and Jewish values, which can help to guide us through this Wilderness.
I am not a scientist or a medical expert, and so have nothing to add from that perspective. I am a rabbi, and would like to share five specific Jewish values (with especial thanks to Rabbi Joe Black of Denver) which I have found to be both centering and uplifting. Although there are others we could add to the list, these are the five values we looked to as we made the difficult decision to close down our synagogue building for the next few weeks. My hope is that these values may help you in your own decision making as we do our best to weather this health crisis.
1.Pikuach Nefesh (saving a life): Of all 613 commandments in the Torah, none is more important than saving a life. We are allowed to violate virtually every law (except murder, idolatry and adultery) in order to save a life. Indeed, there is a story of a rabbi in Europe many years ago during a flu outbreak (I am not sure which one) which occurred on Yom Kippur. Although it was a sacred fast day, he brought chicken soup into the sanctuary and compelled everyone to eat. Today, in the midst of this outbreak, your health and safety is of paramount importance to us. Indeed, it is more important than anything else. Period.
2.Lo Ta’ashok Sachir (You shall not abuse a laborer) [Deut. 24:14]: we understand that this crisis will create economic hardship, especially for the most vulnerable in our midst. Therefore, we have decided to continue to pay our entire staff and our vendors throughout the crisis, even when our building is closed. This is what the Torah’s view of a just community looks like in the midst of a crisis.
3.Rachmanut (compassion): we must stay sensitive to the ways our family, neighbors, and friends may be suffering during this crisis, and reach out to provide support and comfort. We are activating a more robust spiritual support and pastoral counselling protocol to make sure we are here for you, and for each other. Please watch for updates with more information.
4.Simchah (celebration): although we might be afraid, that doesn’t mean we can’t find ways to celebrate! We celebrated Shabbat services by live streaming to your homes from our empty sanctuary, and we celebrated Torah through a study session on Zoom on Shabbat morning (led from my home study). We will continue to do both of these things and more as we develop the capability. We also found a way to celebrate b’nei mitzvah for those families who wished to keep their dates, and to find new dates for those who wish to postpone. Regardless, every child and family will still have loads to celebrate.
5.Al Tifrosh min HaTzibur (Do not separate yourself from the community) [Pirke Avot 2:4]: These words from the famous rabbi Hillel are more important than ever. All of the medical experts and authorities are emphasizing the importance of social distancing in order to “flatten the curve” of the disease’s spread. However, what they really mean is physical distance, not social distance. We absolutely need more physical isolation, but we also need social, spiritual and emotional connection. We need to find ways to come together, even as we continue to maintain our physical distance, so that we can draw strength and comfort from one another. At Beth Ami we are utilizing technology to allow us to do just that. Our professional team is online, accessing everything at the synagogue from home, looking for ways to stay connected with you. We will be holding virtual appointments, virtual services and virtual Torah study – and looking for more ways to stay together as a community.
Finally, I am reminded of the words of King Solomon the Wise: “gam zeh ya’avor (this too shall pass).” Let us remember that this is a temporary situation, that the day will come when the danger from the virus will have passed. May that day come speedily, and in the meantime, I pray that we all stay physically safe and spiritually connected.
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras