Jason Rubenstein
Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale

A Summer of Sympathy and Solidarity

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

At moments, the Jewish and American calendars overlap with inspirational serendipity: the promise of a new academic year and the wistfulness of autumn sound resonate with the reflective spirit of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But in other seasons, American and Jewish time are out of sync, and never more so than summer. For America, summer is the season of travel, fun, and the boundless possibilities of the present and future. Judaism frames the summer as a time of mournful remembrance of past defeat commemorated through ascetic restraint. At the risk of material determinism, these moods echo the respective agricultural calendars in which they emerged: the bounty of America’s summer harvest versus the barren dryness of a Mediterranean summer, the former expressed in Gershwin’s ‘Summertime,’ the latter in the myth of Persephone.

This American summer is aberrant in its somberness – and is in need of Judaism’s mournful resources. The minor key of the Jewish summer builds in a crescendo to this Wednesday night, the fast of the ninth of Av, commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. It would be a mistake to see a fast’s abstention from life-sustaining food and drink and the body’s various pleasures as an expression of mourning – after all, fasting appears nowhere in Judaism’s wise and intricate methods of mourning the deceased. 

Judaism employs fasts not to mourn the losses of the past, but to create bonds of sympathy with those suffering in the present. The prescription of fasting grows out of an unerring spiritual diagnosis of our current condition, an awareness that the Temple’s destruction is not only a historical event, but also an existential condition. Our community is not only suffering, but internally divided – between those whose lives have been ravaged or taken by the pandemic and those enjoying (I use that word advisedly) a quiet quarantine of material abundance and physical wellbeing.

This chasm between the comfortable and the afflicted is untenable and unjust – and can only be mended by a sacrifice on the part of those with enough, or more than enough. In a passage of deep understanding and high standards, the Talmud (Taanit 11a) instructs:

When the community is immersed in suffering, a person should not say, ‘I will go into my home, and eat and drink, and my soul will be at peace.’

I cannot recall feeling as implicated by a text as by this one, this week. I am not alone: my inbox overflows with friends’ emails gesturing to the confusion and guilt arising from doing well in this season of devastation. The social forces – from health guidelines to neighborhood segregation to UberEats – that beckon us to remain apart are mighty. The Talmud is familiar with such forces, and with the temptation they abet – but it refuses to yield to them. 

It is not for nothing that the Talmud makes eating and drinking its metonym for a comfortable existence. Just before the above passage, Rav extols those who voluntarily “undergo hunger in a time of famine.” Whether the purpose of such self-imposed hunger is to cultivate a sympathy with the involuntarily hungry or to be able to contribute a bit more to alleviate unchosen hunger – and it is almost certainly both – the link between abundant food and comfort, on the one hand, and deprivation and distress, on the other, is essential. This same duality animates Mar Zutra’s statement (Brachot 6a), “The reward of a fast is tzedakah”: having just experienced hunger, one is moved to give to those who experience it regularly; having spent a bit less on food, one is able to give more. The idea is straightforward – undergo experiences that generate sympathy which culminates in acts of solidarity.

This demand that the presently-comfortable move their lives closer to those who are suffering is not only a norm to be enacted: it is also a way of imitating God. In justifying the public humiliation of the ark during times of famine (Taanit 16a), Rabbi Yehuda ben Pazi quotes Psalm 91, “I [God] am with them in distress,” while Reish Lakish offers Isaiah 63, “In all of their distress, God is distressed.” If we live at a consistently comfortable distance from widespread suffering, we remove ourselves further from the world than even God does – which is to say, indefensibly far, inhumanly far.

The Talmud offers a final haunting parallel to our socially distanced and diminished lives. Fasting – first privately, then publicly – is the prescribed response to a rainless fall, which foretells widespread agricultural and economic hardship. Should these fasts fail, and the season pass without the needed rains, the Talmud offers an image of a demoralized society (Mishna Taanit 1), “they reduce business, construction, planting, engagements and marriages, and even greeting one another – like people who have been rejected by God.” We have here description and prescription together – in a time of communal distress, when loss is so widespread and profound as to raise serious questions about a community’s future – it is appropriate and fitting to move through the world mournfully. I do not fully know what to make of the uncanny parallel between the Talmud’s communal dejection and our social-distancing – closed businesses, canceled construction, postponed weddings, and alienation from one another; it is difficult to understand how such similarity could obtain between practices generated by such different rationales.

At this point I must share the degree to which my thinking is indebted to Daniel Olson and Rabbi Ben Goldberg. Together, they rewrote the elegy Eli Tziyon, sung on the ninth of Av, as a Hebrew acrostic mourning America’s – and the world’s losses – in these six dark months of pandemic (lyrics and video, including instrumental music). As only art can, their music revealed a connection; this essay is footnotes to their poetry.

The rabbinic norm of closing the gap of lived experience demands expression in action. I want to offer both a suggestion and a caveat. My suggestion for those fortunate enough to be addressed by the Talmud’s call is to give in parallel to your spending. When ordering groceries, donate a fraction of your bill to a foodbank; when paying rent or the mortgage, give to an organization that helps families facing eviction; when purchasing books or educational materials, support children struggling without school. Each gift will improve the world. And, if we take our giving far enough, to a degree that is unfamiliar and uncomfortable, the very act of giving will also shrink the emotional chasms that tear our communities apart, robbing us of the ability to understand one another’s lives, and therefore of the ability to aid one another. 

And the caveat – these words and ideas can be taken in punitive, self-injurious ways. The danger the Talmud fears is not that anyone will sometimes be comfortable – it is that some people will be comfortable all the time, thereby losing the ability to understand the plight of their neighbors. All of us need times and places of celebration, relaxation, and renewal. In the rabbinic idiom, the command to go hungry cannot and does not apply on Shabbat: rather its opposite reigns, a positive requirement to delight in food and drink. While reopening Disney World is at odds with the ethos of this essay, modest and refreshing vacations are not – in fact, they may provide the very strength necessary to expose ourselves to types of discomfort and disorientation that we normally avoid, but now need as the basis for feelings of sympathy and acts of solidarity.

Because, without guidance from above (in any sense of ‘above’) it is our sympathy and solidarity that will save us this summer.

About the Author
Jason Rubenstein is the second Howard M. Holtzmann Jewish Chaplain at Yale and the senior rabbi of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale. All opinions are his own.
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