This is an unusual time in our lives, living under conditions and circumstances we have never before experienced. It brings back memories of historic periods when the world suffered epidemics like the Black Death caused by bubonic plague, smallpox, Spanish flu, typhoid, all of which wiped out masses of the world population. And we Jews were blamed in practically every natural disaster for bringing plague upon the world, even though we suffered along with everyone else.
Thankfully we are no longer living in the Middle Ages and our medical awareness, facilities, medicines and physicians, imperfect as they are, are far better than what was available to our ancestors. Plagues like this have occurred throughout history, which does not mean that we can be complacent. Our insecurity in the face of the unknown is real but humanity has faced these things many times before. Here is my advice, and I thank you for your patience for this unusually long News From The Square, mainly because I will not have much of a chance to see most of you in the coming weeks. So first, the practical advice from your rabbi:
1) Know the facts and stay away from rumours. There are some very good websites for accurate information. There is an enormous amount of panic now and much erroneous information out there. These rumours do not help. Get advice from people you trust the most, especially medical and psychiatric professionals.
2) Practice all the essential hygienic and respiratory self-care. Wash your hands often, keep a safe distance from people you meet by arrangement or bump into.
3) Stay connected. The emotional factor here is so important. We have the phone, facebook (social media, which I normally dread), texting, emailing and other links. We have to learn different ways to break the isolation we can feel when alone. I personally have never talked so much with my children and the rest of my family since this all began, and it is a great source of strength to me.
4) Get in Touch with Nature. Make sure you go for walks, but away from other people, avoiding crowds. We all need the neurotransmitters in our brains to feel the sun at our backs and the wind in our faces. The endorphins, as I have read, make us more buoyant, which is incredibly important for our physical and mental well-being. They are restorative, especially when we are under such stress.
5) Reach out to professionals, even your rabbi, if you are having a difficult time. This is not the time to keep it all inside. Sometimes just speaking with someone you trust is enough.
6) Stay kind. Chesed, kindness goes a long way. At this time of social distancing, we need to be less judgmental of others. We are all in this together.
Which leads me to the second part, Jewish Responses:
1) Pray while you are at home, it’s good to soothe the soul. When Jacob was going to meet his brother Esau, expecting his brother to be ready to murder him, yitzaku el Adonai – he cried out to God. Do it, let your words rise up to Heaven.
2) Jewish Unity – Kol Yisrael arevim seh ba’zeh. Our rabbis teach us that “All Israel is responsible for one another”. This value of Jewish responsibility and unity has been our people’s strength in every crisis and will continue to be. We are in this as one, finding ways every day to help each other. In this Shabbat’s Torah portion, Vayakhel-Pikudei, Moses gathers all the people as one and reiterates the details of the building of the Mishkan, theTabernacle. Despite our differences throughout history, in times of crisis we come together – Orthodox, Reform, Masori, atheist, agnostic, old and young.
3) We are also in the same human boat. The story is told in the Talmud that the great Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was in a boat with other passengers and noticed one of them drilling a hole through the boat. The Rabbi asked why he was doing that and the man replied: “I needed to drill a hole”, totally unmindful of anyone else in that boat. The Rabbi cried out, “You are sinking us all! Stop at once!” It reminds us that the world is like Noah’s Ark, one boat, and we realise more and more that we are one human family who must fight this scourge together.
4) No one is left behind here, young or old. In the twelfth chapter of Numbers, where Miriam is recovering from skin disease, the Torah says: “The people did not march until she had recovered. “Saving ourselves is not enough. We must ensure that we take measures to ensure the health and safety of all around us.
5) Talk to each other, as I mentioned above. This is a Jewish ethic from the book of Proverbs: D’aga balev ish yesh chana. (Proverbs 12:25: If there is anxiety in a person’s heart, give him kindness.) In other words, the more we share with others, the less anxiety there will be.
6) The last “Jewish” ethic here is the most important, symbolised by this coming Shabbat Hachodesh, the Sabbath for the month of Nisan, the month of Passover. The word chodesh in Hebrew means renewal, a fresh start, which is what Passover is all about – springtime, greenery, a new reading of history and hope for the future. Psalm 27 tells us: Chazak v’ya’amatz libecha, Let your heart be strong and courageous – and put your hope in God. Strength and courage are needed. A Jew is never allowed to lose conviction, courage and ultimately hope.
Synagogue life will be quieter than usual but that does not stop our Judaism and practice of faith at home, to pray, study and celebrate Shabbat with our families. We will emerge from this all the stronger, perhaps lighting those candles in our homes to make us realise that the heart of our Jewish identities resides in our homes. We use two yuds in our prayer books to signify the Name of God and the Sages asked: “Why two yuds?” Because it is the last letter of the first word and first letter of the second word in the phrase B’nei Yisrael, the People of Israel.
There are better days ahead, God knows, and our synagogue will again ring with beautiful voices in prayer, learning, and joy.
My wishes to you all for a Shabbat of peace and blessing,