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Love in the Time of Corona

03/13/2020 09:47:34 AM


Rabbanit Alissa Thomas-Newborn


My handwashing affects you. And yours affects me. 

The reality of how interconnected we are is at the forefront of our minds as we face the global pandemic of the coronavirus. It’s natural to focus on the fear and palpable anxiety, which have hit us hard this past week. But I want to encourage us to take a much needed break from that and push ourselves to think as people of faith---to use this acute moment to reflect on our interconnectedness and assess our ability to support each other as a spiritual family. To devote our attention to mitzvah observance, ethical dialogue, and spiritual courage. The physical representation of the coronavirus (may it be wiped out speedily and completely) brings to the forefront an urgent moral truth: We affect each other; we are responsible for each other; we are accountable to each other. As we always do, let’s look to our tradition for wisdom~~

Years after the sin of the golden calf, Moshe begins the book of Devarim. He addresses כל ישראל (all of Israel) recounting our rebellion against God. Though he is not the first to ask-- the Tchernovitzer Chasidic Rebbe in his Be’er Mayim Chayim poses an astounding (yet fair) question: Why does כל ישראל (all of Israel) get punished and blamed for cheit haeigel? We know from the rabbinic tradition that it was in fact only erev rav (the Egyptians who converted and accompanied the Jews out of Mitzrayim) who participated in the sin of the calf. And if that’s not enough— just from the simple text, we see Moshe only directly punishes those involved. So why years later when Moshe retells the story, does he hold ALL of Israel accountable for cheit haeigel?

The Tchernovitzer says in order to understand, we must look to Masechet Shabbat 54b. There the Gemara teaches: כל מי שאפשר למחות לאנשי ביתו ולא מיחה נתפס על אנשי ביתו, “Anyone who has the ability to protest the sins of the members of his family and does not, he himself is held accountable,” באנשי עירו נתפס על אנשי עירו בכל העולם כולו נתפס על כל העולם כולו, “The same applies if a person is able to protest the sins of his town or even of the whole world! If he is able to protest, and does not, he is held accountable.” 

What? How is it fair that a person would be responsible for something he himself didn’t do? Is this just? The radical message here is that in a case in which we have the ability to stop sin, and we don’t-- in that case we become complicit and accountable. The Tchernovitzer says this is what happened with cheit haeigel. And so whether it was erev rav or just a minority of B’nai Yisrael who made the golden calf, כל ישראל, all of Israel became responsible for it because they could have stopped it. 

This teaching has far reaching implications. In the face of good and bad-- when we have the ability to help each other-- we must. For we are all connected and accountable for each other. In our parsha’s context the lesson is about sin. But the reverse is true as well regarding the good we create. In chaotic times, more than anything else, what is in our control is how we choose to affect each other. My handwashing affects you. And yours affects me. My attitude affects you, and yours affects me. And my mitzvot affect you, as yours affect me. When we are scared and want to shut down and socially isolate-- that’s when we need community, כל ישראל, most.

We are not the first spiritual community to face fear and angst in the face of illness. In response to the outbreak of cholera in the 1830’s, Rabbi Akiva Eiger wrote letters guiding his community. In one, he wrote: העובר על ציווי הרופאים בסדר ההנהגה חוטא לה׳ במאוד כי גדול סכנתא מאיסורא, “Ignoring the instructions of the doctors is a great sin against God, because of the halachic principle ‘danger is more severe than prohibition’-- a quote that comes from Chullin 10a”. The message of our tradition is clear: Protecting life and health is primary-- before attending minyan, learning Torah, or any chiyuv. But perhaps even more strongly-- Rabbi Eiger shows that it is incumbent on each of us to care for each other. We stand before God as a community-- one about which the words כל ישראל should not refer to collective sin and distance-- but to merit, goodness, and compassion. 

This Shabbat we may not be meeting in the social ways we normally cherish-- at kiddush, around large Shabbat tables, or even in a packed shul-- but we still have the power to make each other feel loved, seen, and cared for. At BDJ, we are implementing several ways for us to engage in mitzvot during this time. Such that we promote safety and also gain hope and peace from our interconnectedness (rather than anxiety and isolation). Spiritual community (even virtually) is the antidote to illness and isolation. We are offering open virtual office hours with me and Rav Yosef-- at noon and again at 8:30pm daily. We are also shifting some of our regular shiurim to Zoom. And we have set up a portal (Chessed Brigade) to track who is in need and who is volunteering to help (sending meals to each other, offering friendly lay phone calls and clergy calls, etc). Finally, we ask that everyone take on additional davening and Tehillim. You can join us to daven together on Zoom at our regular minyan times (even though it won’t be a halachic minyan-- we can pray together), כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י ה׳ רֹֽפְאֶֽךָ, as God is our source of healing. We call on God to provide healing to the sick, as well as wisdom to the doctors who are researching tests, vaccines, and cures.

This Shabbat, we recommit to being a people of faith who hold each other accountable to seek out goodness and connection in a world that desperately needs it. Look no further than the image of netilat yadaim. There is tremendous wisdom in our tradition of viewing handwashing as a chance to lift our hands. To elevate our actions and our nature to a place of divinity— beyond ourselves. As we wash our hands for cleanliness, we may not be saying a bracha-- but we are doing a holy act. We are acknowledging our interconnectedness. We are valuing and protecting life— as Rabbi Akiva Eiger instructed. We are elevating our homes, city, and world— as the Gemara taught. 

And so we pray...may my handwashing affect you. And may yours affect me.

Mon, July 22 2024 16 Tammuz 5784