As the news of its might spread, the nations trembled before it, their citizens fallen into the grip of panic, their leaders thrown into mayhem, or worse, stony silence. But not because they heard of God’s splitting the Sea of Reeds when we read parshat Beshalach last month, but when, at the same time, the world began to realize the seriousness of this latest plague, COVID-19.
But how should we, as Jews, respond? Together we’ve weathered many plagues. This time there have been many institutional and Rabbinic responses on how to modify our actions – reducing kissing ritual objects and other physical contact, cancelling classes, kiddushes, advising against going to shiva, limiting the number of people who attend davening, if not canceling services completely.
All of which is highly appropriate. After all, ‘kol Yisrael ereivim ze ba ze’, we are all responsible for one another, and in this time we are literally the guarantors of each other’s health and lives. Many have focused on our responsibility to preserve our own health (‘u-nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteikhim’) but here we must also ensure to not threaten others by being idle and continuing with our lives because we’re young, healthy, or unafraid – ‘lo taamod ‘al dam re’eka’.
As we face quarantine, isolation, or at the very least, minimal physical contact, anxiety and fear abound. Very few are even around to offer a scrubbed hand much less a hug of reassurance in these times. So in this era of avoidance and alarm, how do we spiritually gird ourselves for this estranged encounter with our frailty?
Despite acknowledging the importance of the mitzvah of bikkur cholim and trying to keep minyanim going in times of plague (bBava Kamma 60b), the Rabbis were well aware of the dangers of contagious disease – heeding Jeremiah’s warning to stay off the streets and board the windows when it struck (bBava Kamma 60b). They did not dare visit those afflicted (Ketubot 77b). Or at least all took heed but one, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi.
Before we call him foolhardy, risking his life and those with whom he might come into contact, let us seek to understand Rabbi Yehoshua. He insists on learning Torah among the gravely ill and quarantined, since he understands that Torah can protect them from their illness. He sees himself as emergency medical personnel for the soul, on the front lines battling for his fellow Jew’s spirits. As he says in Pirkei Avot (6:2), “it is the one who does not occupy himself with Torah that is the outcast, it is the study of Torah that makes us free,” and this is especially true of our earthly preoccupations. By going out and learning with the afflicted, Rabbi Yehoshua battles the stigma of contagion and avoids the essentialist mistake of equating people with their illness. Even when he himself is on Death’s door and encounters the Angel of Death, he attempts to steal Death’s blade for the sake of all mankind, willingly risking his own place in Olam Haba. But God restrains him; mortality is man’s fate. And ultimately that is what this pandemic reminds us – our physical lives are so very fragile and deeply depend on the actions of every other person, for good and ill.
But the moral of the story goes beyond our fragile fate or that Torah study can be used as an escape from our physical worries. Because our story is not complete. We must discover why Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi had this unique attitude among his colleagues.
Years earlier Rabbi Yehoshua had chanced upon Elijah and he inquired of him when Mashiach was coming. Elijah responded “Ask him yourself”. When Rabbi Yehoshua asks where he is and how he will recognize Mashiach, Elijah says “He sits among the paupers afflicted with leprosy [at the city gate], wrapping his bandages” Rabbi Yehoshua finds Mashiach and asks again when he is coming and is told “Today” but when he goes home the Mashiach does not come. Confronting Elijah with his frustration, Rabbi Yehoshua is told “This is what he was saying to you: ‘Today – if you heed His voice’”. (Sanhedrin 98a)
God’s voice, enacted through Mashiach sitting among the lepers, impels Rabbi Yehoshua to follow in his footsteps and sit among the afflicted. The primary reason to sit among the infected is not to study Torah but to simply be with them, encounter them- to hear their cries, recall their affliction, and bandage our wounds together. This is not just out of pity for the sick or for their sole benefit. Because of this exposure to pained desolation, Rabbi Yehoshua is nearly able to not only transcend his own death but rescue all mankind because of the deep caring he had cultivated for those around him.
Modern technology allows us all to strive to follow in the path that Rabbi Yehoshua blazed emulating Mashiach while, miraculously, following the position of his colleagues at the same time and not risking our own lives. We can be with others not just in spirit, but via our virtually tangible presence. Reach out to those who are afflicted –to those who are actually sick, in quarantine, most at risk and fearful, or even just your anxious friends, who are buying up every last bottle of sanitizer. If you sent Mishloach Manot in the past few days, follow up with a phone call or video chat. Have a telepresence chavruta. Listen to digital drashot. If you are somewhere where large crowds are to be avoided but small groups are still ok, take the chance to have an intimate davening – be aware of each and every other member of your minyan, what they are davening for, what they are worried about. Use the informal setting to incorporate new practices that reinforce our achdut, praying for those afflicted with this virus using the newly authored tefillot and piyyutim [1,2, 3, 4] as well as our ancient tehillim.
Purim may be over but it can serve us as a model for reconnecting. Those who can teach must share their Torah with the virtual masses. We must listen carefully to each other – each word and nuance, as meaning becomes harder to discern on social media. Create and join groups online to share and try to celebrate what you can – suggest books, movies, articles, and especially seforim and Torah for people to learn in these long, lonely weeks ahead. Remember your friends are out there – finally call them and catch up. Send food – people in quarantine have reported how exciting and meaningful it is when they get a knock on the door and food is delivered. They feel remembered and cared for beyond the quick check-in text. And help those in need – those who are suffering financially from this crisis as well as those that are suffering physically and mentally – from sickness, from anxiety, and from loneliness.
This is a time we can use to reconnect to our community – creating new virtual spaces for our neighborhoods, shuls, community centers, and Hillels. To reconnect to our family. To reconnect to ourselves and to God. But it does not have to be lonely time. Remember those that are single and those for whom after-davening kiddush is their social lifeline – have them over for an intimate meal. Reach out to those who can’t say kaddish and daven with them. This Shabbat will hit many hard – many will encounter for the first time what a Shabbat without shul, community, and friends is like. Use that to empathize with those that have stopped coming to shul even before this crisis – some people, both unaffiliated and in our own neighborhood, go through this every week – it is time we reconnect with them and rethink how we can engage everyone better.
In this time when the people of the world are cutting themselves off from one another, we must strive to encounter one another, support each other, and unite. If it cannot be physically, than virtually and, above all, spiritually though Torah, tefillah, and gemilut chassadim. And when we do eventually come out of our caves in a few months, we must remember what else Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught us to appreciate – by saying the blessing of Shehechianu when finally re-encountering our friends again in person. For encountering one another is truly a blessing.
For now let us join together and pray for God to grant a refuah shleima to all who are ill.