COVID 19 and the most widely observed Shabbat ever

This Shabbat will be unlike any other.  It will be the most widely observed in human history.  The reasons why people from across the globe will share family meals, stay close at home, and discover different forms of connection, will have nothing to do with the Shabbat instructions which open this week’s Torah portions.  The cause, of course, is the invisibly-lethal coronavirus pandemic.

At the very same when the blessings of the Sabbath are introduced to the wider world, Shabbat within our Jewish world will look less like it ever has.  No hosting others for Shabbat meals.  An absence of public Torah reading.  Synagogues closed and quiet.  It is a strange irony indeed.  Precisely when we are required to alter our Shabbat practice, the worldwide web of humanity develops an affinity for it.

And yet we also share in their spirit of discovery.  Untapped ways to connect and share are equally available to us all.  But this is so much easier said than done.  With ‘change’ as our new normal, we’re expending immense energy – self-control alone requires lots of it – adjusting to new norms.  And then there’s fear.  Two of our greatest fears are the fear of dying and the fear of being alone.

What then can we do when, paraphrasing Bari Weiss’s thoughts this week, our greatest communal strength – holy togetherness – has become our greatest risk?

Consider a lesson from the last two words of the book of Exodus in this week’s portions.  Rashi comments on the words ‘in all their journeys’, “A place where they encamped (massa) is also called ‘a journey.” So throughout our history, encampments have also counted as journeys.  Jewish resilience depends upon fidelity to this notion.  Now we need to take it personally, even physiologically.

Oxytocin – the hormone that commonly flows from human touch – is going to be in short supply in the coming weeks.  It will require new release points.  Some of the lab-tested ways to boost the good feelings derived from oxytocin include: listening with your eyes  giving unexpected gifts, and saying “I love you” or “I love the way you said that” or “did that” or “how you responded just then”.  The most interesting activator of the hormone, however, is meditating – but with a focus on others not on yourself.

When we think beyond ourselves, beyond our economic and psychological stresses, we can awaken empathy for another person’s agonizing grief over a death caused by the virus.  When we get over our frustrations, our disappointments, and our inconveniences, we can begin to listen for the yelling stomach of someone who is starving.

Needs are now new for every single one of us. They are different for the nurse, for the small business owner, for the restaurant server, for the artist, and for the social worker.  Yet in one way, we all share the same new need – to become interior designers.  The interior we are furnishing, however, is ourselves.  As we strive to equip and appoint our sense of interiority, may we each discover how our encampments can become our adventures.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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