“The entire world drinks from the waters of the ocean.”
Today’s Daf Yomi text continues the discussion on walking through limits and when one is allowed to violate boundaries in matters of urgency. This discussion has me thinking a lot about personal space and cultural differences. The sense of what comprises appropriate space differs around the world, where there are contact cultures and non-contact cultures. In North America we require much more distance among strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, friends and family than what is required in South America.
COVID-19 has redrawn the boundaries of personal space around the world, with all of us globally following guidelines to keep 6 feet or 2 meters between us. We have learned through the last few day’s text that each person has four cubits of personal space surrounding him and can travel 2,000 cubits (a little more than half a mile) outside this measurement on Shabbat. COVID-19 has also redrawn the allowable space we are able to travel, with cities and towns shutting down and opening up and shutting down again as a result of the pandemic. Most of us are not getting on trains or planes and traveling beyond our neighborhoods or in many cases our four walls.
If someone travels two thousand cubits, he is allowed to return home, but if he goes out beyond the allocation, he must spend the night sheltering in place wherever he finds himself. In yesterday’s reading Rav Nahman came up with a novel solution that leveraged people who were out and about as human partitions in order to extend one’s space. This was only permissible, however, if the humans were not aware that they were being used in this way. In an exception to the rule, if someone travels to save lives, such as a first line healthcare worker, he can return home even if he went beyond the two thousand cubits on Shabbat.
We are also told that if a town is attacked and solders travel beyond 2,000 cubits, they are allowed to return home. A distinction is made between an all-out attack on a town that threatens the lives of its residents and pilfering of its resources. In the latter case, the soldiers would have to wait until the end of Shabbat to return home. The war scenario reminded me of when I sat in a New Jersey synagogue on Yom Kippur in October 1973 when the Rabbi announced that the state of Israel was under attack by a coalition of Arab states. I did not understand what it really meant to attack on this day until I was in Israel last October on Yom Kippur and realized how shut down the country was on the holiest day of the year. There was literally nothing open; even the local television stations were dark. As I walked to the Western Wall, I noticed how quiet the city was, but also how many soldiers were out guarding the city. It was a city closed down, but well-guarded.
The discussion of space is extended to a cistern which is used to draw water from its source. If the cistern belongs to a specific person, “its water is like the feet of that individual” and it may be carried within his allowable personal space. If the cistern belongs to the community, it may be carried according to the personal space of the individual who drew the water from its source.
The discussion becomes very esoteric when it considers the vastness of rainwater, the ocean and clouds. We are told that rainwater is “like the feet of all people.” The text considers the origin of rainwater, which we are told comes from evaporated ocean water, although it later appears to correct itself and link rainwater to the clouds above us. The position of clouds at the start of a festival and how far one is allowed to carry rainwater as a result is discussed. The Rabbis take on the impossible task of considering if we are talking about the same clouds that were in the sky at the beginning of the period in question. The clouds are literally above Shabbat prohibitions because “there is no prohibition of Shabbat limits above ten handbreadths.”
I noticed when New York City went into lock-down in mid-March that while the city and much of the world was closed, the clouds became larger and more dramatic in the sky. They created huge canopies above us and appeared to be both closer and more mysterious than I had ever remembered. I was not sure if I was simply noticing them more than I had because I was home, or if the sky had simply yielded to the clouds. A family of birds suddenly appeared on my balcony for the first time. It seemed like while everything had shut down, there was suddenly space for nature to reclaim the sky.
During this week between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur which is also Climate Week in New York City, I have been thinking about the earth and how we need as human beings to give back some of our personal space to the trees and land and sky and ocean and rivers. We are facing both a climate and a heath catastrophe, due to how we have lived without care for the planet over the past decades. While we pray for healing of the broken-hearted during these Days of Awe, we should consider how to heal our broken planet. For it too, along with those of us that are sick in body and soul, is suffering.