Love in the Time of Corona, Shabbat March 13, 2020
This week’s parasha is Ki Tissa, which contains the well-known, angst-filled scenario where the newly freed Israelites are awaiting Moses’ return from the top of Mt. Sinai with the freshly inscribed Tablets of the Covenant. But Moses is delayed. It seems like he has been gone forever. Maybe he’s not coming back at all. And the people begin to panic. Their imaginations run wild. There is no calming them down. Moses has been their one visible link to the invisible God who has been guiding and protecting them on their journey through the wilderness. The people then converge on Aaron, Moses’ brother, the second-in-command, and demand that he do something, and quick. They demand that Aaron make them a god to go before them since that man, Moses, who knows what has happened to him. Perhaps in an effort to appease the people and restore sanity or to buy some time while he figures out what to do, Aaron tells all the people to bring their rings of gold from off their wives, sons and daughters. And the people rush forward with their offerings. Aaron collects the gold and fashions it into the Golden Calf! And we know how the rest of that story turns out.
In this classic Jewish story, we see what happens when panic and anxiety run rampant. People rush to fill the void with anything that will make them feel better, to feel safe, to feel connected to something powerful. There is great danger here as well. Moses’s long absence, and to some degree the challenges created by God’s invisibility, lay bear the fault lines within the community. We see their weaknesses, the places where the people are feeling insecure and vulnerable. In this time of need, they don’t turn to each other, they turn on each other. They don’t open their hearts in prayer, they open their “pocket books,” as it were, and throw money, gold, at their problem to soothe their fears. They don’t build a stronger sense of community, they build an idol that cannot hear and cannot truly help them.
This element of our Torah portion resonated with me as we see our own anxiety and concern growing in the face of a pandemic that is spreading like wildfire around our country and the world, and bringing modern life as we know it to a grinding halt. How will we respond? With panic? With fear? Or with a sense of calm purpose, drawing on the wisdom of our tradition and our faith?
“An invisible virus will make visible our true strengths and weaknesses,” Dan Zak writes in a moving piece in the Washington Post today. “It will expose the faults in our systems, the sincerity of our relationships, the ways in which we work together or don’t…. The farther we remove ourselves from each other, the more we will need each other…. Life has begun to rearrange itself in both time and space. Each of us now has a radius of concern that measures six feet—the distance sneeze droplets can travel.”
The virus may be invisible, but more importantly, how will we make God visible? Through love in the time of Corona! The love that we share, the love that we make available to one another. When major calamities strike, be they disease, earthquakes or floods, they are often described as “acts of God.” I remember a powerful teaching by Rabbi Harold Schulweis z”l who taught, in the wake of the 1984 earthquakes in LA, that the quakes were not acts of God! Rather our response to these events are acts of God. When we respond with love and kindness, when we care for each other with compassion, when we focus our tender attention on those in need—these are the true acts of God! We can make God visible to each other through our loving connections with one another.
So the question remains how will respond to these challenging times in love. A great teaching comes from Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav. Many of us are familiar with his teaching through the song Kol HaOlam Kulo Gesher Tzar Me’od, “All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the main thing is not to be afraid.” It turns out, however, that the song misquotes the great rebbe. What he actually said was the ikkar, the main thing, was lo yitpached, not to freak yourself out with fear. Rabbi Elizabeth Dunsker teaches: “It’s not about having no fear, rather it is about operating within the fear without letting it stop us from moving forward.” And she shares this commentary on Rebbe Nachman’s words from Likutei Moharan Tinyana 48, by way of Rabbi Stephen Arnold:
“Envision a tightrope walker, balance pole in his hands, crossing between two buildings, with no net. He’s scared; but he keeps on moving. Forward, then back, then forward again. Always in motion. If he were to freeze up with fear and stop moving, that’s when he’d be most likely to fall. Hence the bottom line, v’ha’ikar she’lo yitpacheid klal, it’s critically important that he not fill himself with fear.” Instead, let us fill ourselves up with acts of love!
If we can learn anything from the story of the Golden Calf, it is that we must not let fear guide our actions. But then what should help us and guide us moving forward? We can turn to the deep and loving wisdom of our tradition and our faith. In particular, the values of Pikuach nefesh (preserving life), Al tifrosh min hatzibur, (do not separate yourself from the community) and Tikvah (hope) can offer us inspiring insights for challenging times like these.
First and foremost, we must take every step that we can to preserve life. This is one of the most preeminent Jewish teachings. Practically every mitzvah can be broken in order to save a life. And, as we know from the Talmud, to save but one life is equal to saving the entire world. This means we should follow carefully all of the directives from our health professionals to practice social distancing, regular hand washing, self-isolating if we are sick and following all other health measures prescribed, for life really does depend on all of us taking on these responsibilities for the good of the whole community.
And yet, at the same time, our tradition teaches in the Ethics of the Sages that we must not separate our selves from our community. When we are limited in our opportunities to be with each other in person, we have to rethink how we can maintain the loving connections that we share with one another. Connections that are our life lines, which also provide us with a deep sense of hope for the future. So, if we can’t physically be with everyone, we must be creative in how we stay connected through calls and cards, regular check-ins and chats. This idea is so beautifully captured in a message from Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky on the Facebook page of his Los Angeles congregation, B’nai David-Judea:
“The very last thing we need right now is a mindset of mutual distancing. We actually need to be thinking in the exact opposite way. Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another must become a thought as to how we might help that other, should the need arise.”
I share this poem as a closing prayer by Lynn Ungar for how we can find hope and promise as we look at the hidden, mysterious gifts of this moment.
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
With blessings for connection, healing, strength, hope and love in this time of Corona,