One of the most remarkable feelings in the world is to be in Jerusalem late on a Friday afternoon. You literally can feel Shabbat approaching. As the sun descends traffic slows to a trickle, pedestrians clear the streets, and a calm engulfs the City. Shabbat is coming, and with it an enforced rest for all concerned.
In much of the world, it feels like an elongated Shabbat is approaching, but without the blissfulness with which we associate the biblical day of rest. We do not know if we are taking a brief respite from the normal hustle and bustle to reconnect with family and community and to recharge our batteries. Instead, almost like the biblical Egyptians, we brace for an impending plague, the extent of which we know not.
I write this article three days after our local school district informed us that all schools will be closed for at least two weeks. Certain municipalities are closing entirely for an indefinite period.
In Italy a nationwide travel ban has gone into effect allowing only supermarkets and pharmacies to remain open. Even if people want to go out, they will not be allowed to and have no place to go. The EU is closing its borders. America’s border with Canada now if shut to all but essential traffic.
Everywhere, there is fear. Even if the pandemic is less than we dread, we might be wrecking our economies and way of life guarding against it. For people of religious faith, what comes naturally now is to gather together to pray for redemption. Now, even that gathering is banned. Can we have a minyan by phone or internet?
Ironically, this mass quarantine occurred during the time when the weekly Parsha is Ki Thissa. Within that Sedra, we read about the fear and dislocation of the Children of Israel as Moses ascends Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. Without their leader and in unfamiliar surroundings and circumstances, they rebel, sin great sins and erect the Golden Calf.
We now may be in similar times, but this time as a world community. Our normalcy is gone. We are at the mercy of a nameless, faceless entity – but unlike the biblical story this entity has no wisdom or “rachmanous”. What will become of us? Will we too rebel and turn our morals and our societies upside down? If so, what modern day Moses will there be to smash the tablets and return us to our senses?
This enforced Shabbat will be a double edged sword. On the one hand it will permit us to focus inward and spend more time with our families. On the other hand, especially for those families – like mine – with teenagers in the house, the strained interpersonal relationships that come naturally with trying to guide and discipline those who are coming of age but not there yet will be exacerbated. For how long can we tell them that they are not allowed to see their friends and have them listen to us? What means do we use to stop them? How broken will the disciplinary bonds be by the time the pandemic ends?
It is likely that the next few weeks and months will be a seminal time in all of our lives. As we begin this elongated Shabbat, we don’t even know it’s duration. Will we even be allowed to gather together for Pesach Seders in April? One of its first casualties has been our synagogue’s community Seder, which was just cancelled.
Shabbat Around the World will be one we all remember. It will be a test of our religious faiths, our parenting skills and our overall humanity to make it a time we got closer to our families, pull together as a community and find common cause with people the world over to fight a collective enemy. Let’s pray we pass that test. On that, at least, I believe people the world over and of all faiths can agree.