A Lesson for Coronavirus

In this unsettling time, it is helpful to remember that Judaism has faced contagions and dangers before, and our sages have reacted wisely. Perhaps best known is the decree of the great Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, who, during the cholera epidemic of 1848, not only permitted but demanded that his congregants eat on Yom Kippur, and he did not exempt himself.

Pikuach nefesh, saving a life, is of paramount importance. The first word reminds us of pikayach, which means to have one’s eyes open. So, although some reactions may be more than is required, the possibility of saving lives necessitates that we err on the side of vigilance.

Judaism is largely about creating community, and that is very difficult to do when people are wary of touching and even gathering. The measures are temporary, however, and urgency genuine. Nonetheless we should not allow concern to swallow joy, or possibilities to be more real than actuality. Every day there is beauty and love and faith and music and wonder. Do not lose today in an imagined tomorrow. As Longfellow wrote: “Let us then be up and doing/ With a heart for any fate;/ Still achieving, still pursuing,/ Learn to labor and to wait.”

About the Author
Named the most influential Rabbi in America by Newsweek Magazine and one of the 50 most influential Jews in the world by the Jerusalem Post, David Wolpe is the Rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, California.
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