Howard Goldsmith
Dad, Husband, Rabbi, Outdoorsman, Skier, Cook, Dreamer

Sanctuaries of Science vs Covid-19

“And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.” – Exodus 25:8

These words from this week’s Torah portion are inscribed at the entrance to synagogue sanctuaries around the world. They speak to our hope that the structures we build will provide a resting place for the shechina, for God’s presence on earth. These words speak to our need to have a separate place, a holy place, a safe place where we can bring our cares and woes, our hopes and sins and good deeds and, in that place, find the promise of redemption. The promise of these words is simple and profound: if we create space for God, God will be in our midst.

Our ancient ancestors needed that sanctuary in their displacement after leaving Egypt. They had left everything they knew. They found themselves homeless in the desert. They did not know what the future would hold. They had just received the Torah and its myriad and very confusing set of laws and guidelines for society and religion. And they did not really know where they were going. They followed Moses for the vague hope of reaching a promised land, a land that would flow with milk and honey – whatever that meant. And so this promise gave them hope: They could build a structure according to very specific instructions and God would dwell in their midst.

The Torah provided every detail for construction from the design of the altar to the wood used for the poles, from the colors of the yarns to the details of the upholstery. The Torah’s detailed instructions were practical on many levels. First, it gave each Israelite something that they could contribute, something specific and concrete that they could give that would make a difference. In other words, when the chaos of the desert overwhelmed, the instructions gave them a sense of control. Next, the directions for the actual construction were very clear. In the midst of seemingly directionless wandering, here were clear steps that provided a path towards a goal. Finally, the instructions promised a positive result: build this and God will be with you.

After this past week, many of us feel like we could use such clear directions and a promised result. With the spread of the corona virus rapidly increasing and the dramatic market downturns, we all feel the need for a bit of sanctuary, a bit of the redemption that must come with God’s presence. If only we had a set of instructions like the Israelites received for building the sanctuary. But we do not. Instead, we see governments throwing the kitchen sink at the problem of the corona virus. Where the Israelites knew how to craft their altar, today’s governments are pulling out medieval quarantine practices through which viruses seep like water through a sieve. The Israelites freely gave whatever was needed for the sanctuary construction, they had a surplus of goods. Our scientists face shortages; too few testing kits, too few medical masks, and lack the epidemiology they need to understand this threat. Where the ancient Israelites knew what specific color yarn to use for the curtains of their sanctuary, the fed offers the possibility of an interest rate cut – the bluntest of economic tools – as something that may slow the market correction.

Yet, the Ancient Israelites had something even more important than the Torah’s directions and the people’s generosity. They had faith. They believed that if they built the sanctuary, that God would, indeed, dwell in their midst. They knew that life was hard and would continue to be hard. But they also believed that God’s presence would provide a sense of comfort and security. Never perfect security – they were not naïve – but the kind of emotional and spiritual security that comes from faith and community and trust.

The reactions to Corona Virus that we see today show a distinct lack of faith. Instead of faith we see panic. Panic about a disease that will kill fewer people than the flu, fewer people than guns, fewer people than car accidents, fewer people than heart disease. The panic is not a response to the actual danger – there are far more dangerous things in our daily lives. The panic is a reaction to the novelty of the virus. The virus seems to have become an idol onto which we’re pouring our generalized anxieties and fear.

Instead we need faith. I’m not talking about a blind faith that God will cure us. I don’t believe that. I’m talking about faith in the calm, rational scientists and medical professionals who tell us that the vast majority of us will be just fine. That we should wash our hands. That we should sneeze into our elbows. That we should stay home if we don’t feel well. That these simple measures will do more than anything else to protect us and our loved ones. And we need faith in our own rational minds – faith that if we can live with the other dangers around us – guns, flu, high cholesterol, global warming – we can also live with this danger. This faith will overcome our panic, calm the stock market, and allow us to be there for one another. It will allow us to get through this unknown wilderness moment.

Had the ancient Israelites given into the panic of the desolate desert, they would not have been able to build the sanctuary for God’s presence. Had they looked at the unknown terrain and the unclear path and given up hope, they surely would have perished in that empty wilderness. Instead, they used their faith to come together, to build a sanctuary, to welcome God’s presence. In doing so, they made it possible to persevere. And, though they met great challenges along the way, they ultimately made it to the Promised Land. Let us build sanctuaries, sanctuaries of reason and calm, community support and sound science, and let the holiness of those sanctuaries bring us peace, confidence, and equanimity. When we build those sanctuaries, God will surely be in our midst

About the Author
Rabbi Howard Goldsmith is the spiritual leader of Congregation Emanu-El of Westchester, a Reform synagogue in Rye, New York. He is an executive member of the Westchester Board of Rabbis and a chaplain for the Westchester County Police Department.
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