In 1968 the South African folk group, Four Jacks and a Jill, composed a hit song called Master Jack. The key lyrics of the song are “It’s a strange, strange world we live in, Master Jack. “You taught me all I know, and I’ll never look back. It’s a very strange world and I thank you, Master Jack.”
Well, I have been looking back over the last few months and the words of the song have kept popping into my mind. Who can deny just how strange the world has become? The simple pleasures we took for granted, like hugging your friend, kissing your grandchild, reaching out to touch a hurting person are all now to be carefully considered, controlled, restrained. The simple pleasures like dancing at a wedding, huddling around a campfire, sharing a meal or playing a contact sport are now to be carefully constrained, monitored or simply ruled out. Constraint has replaced conviviality. Restraint has replaced let rip.
And for those of us who cherish community, the restrictions on praying and playing and Kiddushing together are particularly challenging and counter-intuitive… I’ve spent a lifetime trying to entice Jews in to Shule, now I have to do my best to keep them out of Shule!
Social distancing seems perverse and anti-Jewish, yet weirdly the principle itself is not so strange to Judaism. We’ve long recognised that in some situations maintaining a careful distance is socially acceptable and Halachikally laudable. It’s called daled amot.
Daled amot is seen as personal space: “Whether you choose to put on deodorant is your own business, as long as you stay out of my daled amot!” It’s also used in the sense of area of expertise, your daled amot is your point of difference. Perhaps this is what the philosopher Diogenes had in mind when asked by Alexander the Great what could be done to help him: Just don’t stand in my sun, he responded …
Daled amot measures about two meters or six feet: daled is the Hebrew letter corresponding to the number four, and an amah is the Biblical measure of a cubit, the distance from your elbow to your middle fingertip (roughly a foot and a half or 45.72cm for an average person).
In Jewish law or Halacha daled amot is a person’s private space and there are many occasions when we are called on to respect this. We are asked not to infringe on this space while someone is in the middle of praying ( specifically the Amidah tefillah). We are asked to distance the daled when approaching a respected teacher; we are told to discriminate the daled and move away from someone excommunicated. Men are called on not to walk the four without a head covering.
It’s simply fascinating that daled amot is almost exactly the distance we are now asked to move to protect ourselves from the virus. In truth, different countries have different degrees of distancing, but they are all remarkably close to the 2-meter measurement of the Halacha.
There’s also a deeper message in the distinctive daled: it’s as much about knowing your own space and limitations as respecting the boundaries between you and others. Knowing one’s limitations is the beginning of wisdom. Paradoxically it opens the doors of making a difference to others. I don’t believe that ordinary people are powerless as large events unfold. In a very real way, we each have profound power to shape and influence the quality and experience of life in our world. If you make yourself small enough, you discover your heart is actually big enough to accommodate others. Looking around at the people and organisations here and across the world just getting on with feeding the hungry, caring for the vulnerable, needy and fearful is humbling.
There are profound lessons I am learning in the close confines of my own daled amot during this pandemic. In small, silent spaces we can discover large untapped areas. In the solitude and privacy of our homes we can slow down and pay more attention, be more actively present in our own lives. My weekdays, if anything are busier than ever, screen time is messing with my mind! But it is here, at home, I am relishing the slow, lingering rhythms of Shabbat. I am listening more attentively to the cadences of the day, hearing the spirit of the prayers, studying more carefully the words of Torah. There isn’t pressure of having to be anywhere else…
I love being with my community on Shabbat, I miss the buzz and shmooze, the chat and connect. But, I am also loving the deep, sonorous peace of the Sabbath, something that is rarely experienced in the busyness of communal life.
And I am so enjoying the relaxed, unrushed time I can now have with my wife and family. As in the phrase of the Torah reading for the first day of Rosh Hashanah, “God heard the cry of Ishmael “ba’asher hu sham” “In the place where he was” (Gen. 21:17.) Being fully in th place we find ourselves is the secret of mindfulness and relatedness. Now I understand too more fully the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas’s magnificent lines:” And the sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy streams. All the sun long it was running, it was lovely….”
It’s a strange world indeed, but out of strange eggs marvelous creatures are hatched. The song Master Jack has the lines-
“You took a colored ribbon from out of the sky
And taught me how to use it as the years went by
To tie up all your problems and make them look neat
And then to sell them to the people in the street”.
In this curious and peculiar season of our lives, may we find bold and innovative ways of weaving the coloured ribbons that have been given to us; may we discover ways of turning our problems into presents, our worries into winners, our fears into hopes .
Chag Yerushalayim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom