“Say to wisdom: You are my sister, and call understanding your kin.”
The reading of the Tractate Shabbos concludes today on a bit of a low note with the cleaning up of a few odds and ends related to permissible acts on Shabbat. The trajectory of the Tractate, which started in early March, coincided with the emergence of the pandemic and shut down of New York City where I live. I found relevancy to the pandemic in much of the Tractate, starting with the discussions on private, intermediate and public domains and set-aside prohibitions. I have mostly been living in the private domain since the onset of the pandemic and have only recently ventured out to visit with friends at outdoor restaurants. I have come to terms with the fact that the life I once knew will be changed forever, with masks and social distancing and hyper-vigilance with us for a long time to come.
The discussion on throwing items across public domains resonated with me because I have been working from home since early March and during the early months of the pandemic, I saw people pacing behind their apartment windows while sheltering in place. They seemed like so many restless souls trapped in their private domains. But we all came together on our balconies and window perches at 7pm each night in order to cheer in praise of the front-line healthcare workers. We were able to find a scrap of connection across our private worlds.
The discussions of prohibition against moving set-aside objects resonated with how I was scrutinizing during the early months of the pandemic every foreign object that entered my home. I was wiping down mail, non-perishable groceries and amazon packages and setting them aside on my balcony, weather permitting, for twenty-four hours. At the time, it was unclear how the virus was transmitted and there were stories in scientific journals and the mainstream press on how long the virus could live on various surfaces. It was a daunting task to stay safe when I live in a high rise building and every elevator button, doorknob, and postal delivery posed a threat.
The opening chapter of this Tractate with the example of the poor person who reaches back and forth into a homeowner’s private domain was heart-breaking when read through the backdrop of the pandemic. Most of us are privileged enough to have a safe place to shelter during the pandemic, and although it was isolating and frustrating to be cut off from so much life, we are safe and have access to good hygiene. The image of a poor person looking through the window of a homeowner, perhaps on Shabbat while the candles were being lit, left me wondering what life was like for those without a permanent residence. Where do they sleep? Do they find a dark corner of a city street or damp basement somewhere? Or are they camped out in the cramped quarters of a relative who allowed them to sleep on the sofa in the living room if it wasn’t already taken? And how much more isolated and alone are the forgotten during the time of a pandemic?
Moses was ever-present throughout many of the chapters of this Tractate. We revisited his descent down Mt Sinai with the sacred tablets and the anger that swelled up within him when he saw his people worshipping the golden calf. We were reminded that he was a great prophet, but also a human being who had very human emotions. This text coincided with Black Lives Matter demonstrations in New York, and the anger that Moses demonstrated when he smashed the tablets was a reminder that sometimes it takes getting angry to effect change. Moses did not give up. He mustered all the strength he had and climbed back up the mountain and received a second set of tablets. When he came down the mountain with the new set, the pieces of the broken tablets were placed into the Holy Arc with the intact set.
There was an important moment of hope during the worse of the pandemic. Elisha, Man of Wings, made two appearances in the daily Daf readings. He was described as a deeply religion man who was unwavering in his fulfilment of the covenant to wear his phylacteries despite a decree by Roman rulers that declared the act forbidden. The punishment for disobeying the decree was quite horrific: the brain of the transgressor would be pierced. Elisha walked through the marketplace with his phylacteries, taunting the Romans with his audacity. When he was stopped by a Roman official, he removed the phylacteries and clasped them in his closed hand. When the soldier demanded to know what he was holding so tightly, he opened his hand and there was an innocent dove spreading its wings. The Talmud tells us that it matters that Elisha was holding within his palm a dove’s wings because Israel is compared to a dove and it was stated: “You shall shine as the wings of a dove covered with silver and her pinions with yellow gold.”
Elisha represented someone who had deep faith in his beliefs and was not willing to forsake his values regardless of the cost and pain, including threat to his own safety. The Elishas among us took to the streets in May to protest social injustice. They can also be found in hospitals around the world where they are on the frontlines caring for the sick and dying and working around the clock to find a vaccine for the marauding virus. They show up every day to over-burdened hospitals despite the risk to their own health. In their hands, they carry their own symbolic dove wings in their steadfast commitment to do their part in fighting the worse public health crisis of our lifetime.
What has been interesting about this journey through the Talmud is that I feel like I am right there with the Rabbis as they argue and discuss what is permissible and what is prohibited. And all this was done against the backdrop of the pandemic, the months when New York City was entirely shut down, and social protests. The Rabbis were constructing rules that were designed to build a fence around Torah prohibitions, just as guidelines were put in place to contain the coronavirus. It has been a long journey from March to now, with the virus mostly contained in New York, but rates of infection are increasing in other parts of the United States and the world.
We must remember Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz who died this past week as we wrap up the Shabbos Tractate. He made the Talmud accessible for so many of us. This Daf Yomi journey would not have been possible without his life-long effort to democratize the Talmud. We were told in Shabbos 153 that if one established a path for others to follow, “he must have a share in the World-to-Come.” We must do things during the course of one’s life that will be remembered by mourners when they stand beside one’s grave. He will be remembered and deeply mourned.
And so, we move on to the next Tractate and the continuation of this 7 ½ journey through the Talmud. It is an act of bravery and fortitude and maybe even a little foolishness to attempt to read this difficult text. The thought that there are people around the world reading the same portion each day and the connection to a community of people who are hopeful enough to keep turning the page is what helps me get through the difficulty of each day’s text and to keep reading on.
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said in the introduction to the Koren Talmud Bavli that “The study of the Talmud is thus the gate through which a Jew enters his life’s past.” The gates are open.