Social distancing connotes the two-meter distance that we maintain to prevent the spread of the dreaded Covid-19. Personally, I dislike the term social distancing because it sounds like we are imposing a social distance, when in fact we are only imposing a physical distance. Socially, we must make an even greater effort to remain connected. When the social vehicle of physical proximity is denied to us, we must seek creative ways to bolster and enhance our social and emotional closeness.
Therefore, I suggest that we call this healthy distancing rather than social distancing. We are distancing for health reasons not for social reasons. And though it is not my place to change the English lexicon, there is ample precedent for Jews and especially rabbis to offer unsolicited advice despite their lack of expertise.
The Torah tells us that before instructing the Jews on how to build the tabernacle, Moses gathered the Jewish nation. This was a gathering of approximately three million people among whom there were leaders, teachers, commoners, wealthy, poor, and all manner of stations in between. Yet, there is no mention of these groupings. In this gathering, all people seemed to be equal parts of a single coalescence.
Moses did this when he built the tabernacle in the desert. Several centuries later, King Solomon built a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem. And just as Moses gathered the nation to build the tabernacle, Solomon gathered the nation to dedicate the Temple. But there was a striking difference between the two gatherings.
Although Solomon gathered the entire nation, he did so in groups. First, he gathered the elders, then the leaders of the tribes, then the princes of the houses, and only then the masses. Moses gathered the entire nation and squeezed them into a single group. Solomon gathered the entire nation but staged them in separate groups. What do these differences represent for us in today’s age of healthy distancing?
It is the nature of things that we bond with people that are like us. Our circle of friends is comprised of those with whom we share interests and affinities. We bond easily with our friends, but people who are different from us in personality or temperament are harder to get along with. We can bond with them, but it requires effort. When we achieve it, it feels like it is artificially imposed.
The truth is that we are all intimately connected with all people because we all share a common soul. It is only our bodies and temperaments that are different. Our souls are all common chips off the same block—slivers of the one G-d. From our soul’s point of view, the differences are irrelevant. Just as we don’t consider our spleen a stranger to our toes because they are both part of us— part of the same organism, so do our souls consider each other one and the same despite our differences.
For those who see life through the prism of the soul, every person in the world is an intimate friend. There is a story about Rabbi Yisrael of Ruzhin, who had a large following. One of his followers harbored a deep love for his Rebbe and was often seized with a burning desire to see him. He was granted special permission to enter the Rebbe’s chambers whenever he felt the need to see him.
There was only one exception to this rule, the day before Yom Kippur. On this day, the Rebbe would self-isolate and meditate. One year, this follower was seized with a yearning to see his Rebbe right in the middle of this day. He tried to enter the Rebbe’s chamber, but the others held him back. A commotion ensued and the Rebbe emerged to see what it was all about.
The Chasid and the Rebbe locked eyes and the Rebbe observed softly, “My dear fellow, you really do love me, don’t you?” The Chasid nodded his head in the affirmative. The Rebbe replied, “I want you to know, that the love you have for me pales to the love that I have for every Jew including our town thief.”
The follower loved, and the Rebbe loved, but these were very different kinds of love. The follower loved because he admired everything about the Rebbe and aspired to be like him. The Rebbe loved because we are all one. There is one collective soul, a spark of which is allocated to each of us. The Rebbe loved the town thief as we love ourselves. There was no difference. No separate groupings. No social distancing.
Moses and Solomon
This brings us back to Moses and Solomon. Both could gather the nation and bind people from disparate groupings. But for Solomon it was an artificial unity imposed by the solemnity and profundity of the sacred moment. As the Holy Ark was escorted into the Temple, the nation was moved and inspired to reach beyond their usual norms and connect even with those who were different from them. It was one gathering, but they were very much aware of the differences between their stations. They reached beyond their natural groupings, but it was not their natural state. It was an artificial imposition of unity.
When Moses, the man who communicated with G-d on Mount Sinai for one-hundred-and-twenty days, gathered the nation, the people did not feel the differences between them. They related to each other as Moses related to them—as common parts of a single organism. They felt the soul. Moses’ unity was pure and authentic. It revealed a truth about the nature of our people.
The Jewish people are not monolithic. We each subscribe to our own philosophy and we each feel that our approach is the best. Sometimes we tolerate others despite our disagreements and sometimes we engage in open derision. One would assume that we are inherently disjointed and don’t belong together. If we ever get along, it is usually imposed upon us by external factors such as a common enemy or danger.
Yet the truth is not so. We are not disparate groupings who must work to get along—to impose upon ourselves an artificial unity. We are a single organic whole, who often forgets that it is one. But at special times, our oneness emerges.
Healthy Social Distancing
This is one of those times. Circumstances have forced us into distancing, but it can be social distancing or healthy distancing. If we were disparate people, we would each worry about ourselves and practice social distancing. Yet, the opposite has occurred. We are all in it together, checking up on each other and reaching out to each other using every method available to us. This is not social distancing; it is healthy distancing because our distance proves that we are inherently united. Organically one.
For every handshake that we must avoid, we compensate with a telephone call, email, text, facetime, or Whatsapp. We check up on the elderly and those who are ill and make sure that the walls that keep us alive, don’t keep us apart. This, my dearest of friends, is not social distancing. It is a very healthy distancing.
May the virus pass quickly, may we come together again in health with sustained unity and love.