Dwelling Outside the Community

Words have the power to elicit varying emotions. The choice of words not only convey an idea, but shape how one perceives the meaning behind the idea. As society finds ways to combat the novel Coronavirus, the leading suggested approach to “flatten the curve” has been “social distancing.” 

Every time I hear this phrase I have a strong negative visceral response. I do not disagree with the underlying concept — limiting physical contact to help slow the spread of the virus — but I do take umbrage with the phrase. The last thing society needs is for individuals to retreat inward. Some will argue that this is a matter of semantics, yet words matter and how we use them speaks louder than the words themselves. The conversation should not focus on “social distancing” but about “preventative physical distancing” (PPD). Semantic? Yes, but with a purpose.

As individuals find themselves in varying degrees of quarantine, now more than ever are the trappings and comfort of community needed. People need check-ins, phone calls, and emails. As we physically withdraw from each other in hopes of ensuring physical well-being, we cannot abdicate from our responsibility to ensure mental well-being. 

Communal organizations are closing their doors: Churches are postponing services, synagogues are canceling sabbath gathering, and mosques have instructed adherents to avoid communal prayer. Out of an abundance of caution other social groups have closed lodges and meeting houses. Although physical gatherings may be unwise, social gathering can, and need to, continue. 

The Riverdale community’s response shines. SAR, has migrated to an online conferencing platform. As teachers and students meet in virtual classrooms, learning and community continues. Synagogue members are reaching out to others, making weekly phone calls to connect and run errands if needed. Non-quarantined members are bringing meals to those homebound. None of these communal acts reflect “social distancing;” they are, in fact, the opposite. These are examples of society tightening the bonds that connect them to one another. 

In the wake of creating Adam, God notes: 

לא טוב היות האדם לבדו

“It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18).

We are social creatures who need interaction, affection, and a sense of belonging. Though there is much work to be done before we can regain a semblance of life before the need to engage in preventative physical distancing, that does not mean that we must socially distance. We need each other. We need a community. 

Though I argue over semantics, I believe in the power of words. Creation came from speech. In the spanning darkness the Holy One’s voice rang out:

יהי אור

“Let there be light.” 

As we confront these dark moments, we need to join together and banish the darkness by using our voices and action to bring light to our communities. 

About the Author
Jonathan S. Hack received his Ph.D. in political science from The George Washington University and rabbinical ordination. He is the Program Officer for the Anxieties of Democracy program at the Social Science Research Council in New York.
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