Robert Harris
A Rabbi and Professor at Jewish Theological Seminary

The breath of life and the season of protection

“The LORD God formed the human of dust from the soil, [God] blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the human became a living being” (Genesis 2:7). As most of us have now been hunkering down for weeks, practicing social distancing as the coronavirus passes silently in the world, I have found myself deeply cognizant of and grateful for my ability to breathe. Additionally, I have tried to radiate compassion for all sufferers for whom even breathing in and out has become a challenge as they grapple with their illness. In that context, a prayer comes to mind that rabbinic liturgists have prescribed as one of the first things one should recite upon awaking. It contains the following lines,

O my God, the life-breath that you have placed within me is pure.
You created it, you fashioned it,
You breathed it into me, and you guard it in my innermost being…
Grateful am I to you.

In its fullness, the prayer intimates that a person waking up each morning and becoming aware of the promise of a new day should first and foremost be grateful for that opportunity. The challenge, of course, is to maintain that sense of gratitude throughout the day, week in and week out and not succumb to listlessness, boredom and — most troubling of all — entitlement, the expectation that life will always be grand and filled with only happiness and reward. All three statutory, daily prayers that rabbinic Judaism directs us to recite include moments in which we are expected to express gratitude for all of the miracles that fill our lives. And considering that rabbinic wisdom considers our very breath to be God-given and therefore one of those “daily miracles,” may help us to appreciate whatever additional blessings we can find in our lives.

But challenges abound, not only of maintaining physical health but also of emotional well-being. The latter, in particular, comes to the fore as we prepare for the Passover holiday: many of us feel challenged by the traditional requirements to kasher our homes, and assemble the special ingredients for the yontev cooking. Additionally, we may experience the disappointment at not being able to gather with family and friends at the Seder; indeed, for those of us sheltering alone, this may be the very first time we have encountered the Talmud’s requirement that one sitting solitary at a Seder must ask him- or herself the Four Questions. In this context, I think it is worthwhile to revisit the sentiments I expressed in an essay I published in the Times of Israel over two weeks ago (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/pikuach-nefesh-a-rabbis-case-for-the-need-to-protect-life/): since the challenges of the coronavirus present themselves as what the rabbis term she’at de-haq, “an urgent circumstance,” I have advised that anyone for whom being alone on Shabbat or holiday and for whom being without some means of participating in public prayers is simply an unbearable sorrow, should participate through Zoom or some other electronic means. As with Shabbat prayer so, too, with the Seder: no one needs to spend a lonely Seder.

In these past weeks, I have been pleased that at least some rabbinic authorities of all inclinations and denominations have responded to the crisis with at least a certain degree of flexibility, and have advised expanding the traditional rules with leniency in order to insure that sequestering ourselves in our homes for purposes of pikuach nefesh, the saving of human life, need not also compound our lives with the pain of loneliness.

Moreover, I have wondered whether most of the hesitation among some religious authorities about applying customary rules of public ritual to online/virtual communities emanates from us older folks and baby boomer types who still put the term “virtual” before the word “community.”  My guess is that for millenials in their teens/twenties or even thirties, the very notion that “being online” is not equivalent to “being present” is itself an outlandish idea.  Younger people live much of their entire lives engaging w/the internet in a constant, never ceasing (or, “hardly ever”) ceasing set of relationships.  Such individuals (again, increasingly all of us) would not question the validity of considering their participation in such a minyan or Seder as anything strange or extraordinary. As my colleague, Rabbi Dr. Karen Reiss Medwed, has written in a not-yet-published article (“Digital Judaism and Platform Access”):

Up until the global pandemic of Coronavirus many people, including rabbis, drew a distinct line between the experience of sitting in a room with another and engaging with another “online.” Even the language used, remote connection, surfaced metaphors which implied and inferred distance and hierarchy… The result has often been restriction of the engagement with connected tools from religious circles or for fulfillment of religious obligations. With generations of users born and raised on universal connectivity increasing, there was a growing disconnect between their ability and interest to connect their global lives with their religious and spiritual lives.

It’s not so clear to me that previous generations of rabbinic authorities have considered the questions that are posed to us under the threat of extreme concern for risk of contagion to a dreaded disease, in such circumstances when opportunities of virtual communities gave the option for fulfillment of religious obligations. (And in my mind this is also true in cases of the wish for experiencing public prayer, not technically an obligation according to Jewish Law.) For example, we can find interesting applications in rabbinic sources of considering the nature of a minyan when not all of the required minimum ten adult men were not physically present, and we certainly had generations of Jews who had faced death either from disease (as in the medieval Black Death) or from persecution (alas, from medieval times through the Shoah and beyond).  But put those two circumstances together — and sensing the urgency of our current situation that has come upon us quite suddenly, without real occasion for deep-seated investigation of traditional rabbinic sources — and you have a sense of why I have called for a temporary takkanah (rabbinic decree) in the absence of time for a normally considered sober course of action.

This week, Jews around the world will hold our Seders and celebrate Passover, at the very time that Christians will gather for Easter and Muslims prepare for Ramadan. All of us will struggle to celebrate our holidays within the circumstances of extreme social distancing engendered by the coronavirus. In the Jewish community, some of us will choose to hold small Seders in our homes, and others will choose to expand the numbers who will join via Zoom and other electronic means. And I imagine that members of all faiths are engaged in similar accommodations. What I would like to call our attention to in the context of the collective human struggle against the coronavirus is the very name that Jews have given this holiday, in English: “Passover.” In Hebrew, of course, the name is Pesah, the very name, as it happens, that underlies the Christian holiday of Easter, as that holy day is known in many European languages (pas-ha, or similar names). As we think in English about the name of this holiday, whether we know it or not, we are influenced by the famed King James translation of the Bible:

… it is the LORD’s passover. For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt… the blood [of the sacrifice] shall be to you for a token upon the houses where ye are: and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and the plague shall not be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:11–13)

The imagery that these verses convey in this translation is that of the “Angel of Death” from Had Gadya in the Passover Haggadah, and in our mind’s eye we typically think of a destroying angel (with wings) flying over the Land of Egypt and striking with deadly force. To be clear, this horrific moment in the traditional story of the Ten Plagues resonates quite deeply for many of us this year, and I have seen more than a few memes that have suggested that Covid 19 should be construed as a kind of 11th plague! I hope that this does not become the dominant trend: it is both troubling theology as well as an idea that is liable to induce a sense of guilt among those who are stricken. But it is not even clear that is the plain meaning of this Scriptural text; while the verb “pasah” may, indeed, mean “to pass over,” in this narrative a different meaning for this multivalent verb might be at play. The verb may also mean “to protect,” as may be seen in Isaiah 31:5: “Like the birds that fly, even so will the LORD of Hosts shield Jerusalem, shielding and saving, protecting [pasoah] and rescuing” (though he appears to be of two minds on the subject, see the commentary of Rashi, the great medieval commentator, on Exodus 12:13). Thus, in the Exodus narrative, God releases God’s destructive power (mash-hit), and the rites of the Passover/Protection sacrifice protect those who observe it. If that in fact is the plain meaning of the Bible at this juncture in the narrative, what religious significance might we find in it that speaks to our present moment?

When humans of all religious faiths perform the rituals that our respective traditions prescribe, I firmly believe that we ought to do so purely in the service of God, and not to endow their performance with some guarantee of influence, in any way we can perceive, in God’s conduct of our universe. That is the difference between faith and knowledge. And I leave questions of theodicy for another day: the precise moments of human suffering and mourning are not the right time for reflective investigations into God’s justice or seeming lack thereof. We are all suffering right now, whether directly on account of the virus, or from its effects and the fear it arouses in all of humankind. Therefore let us celebrate Pesah (or whichever holiday our faith has scheduled for this time of year) as the Season of Protection, in a responsible way that incorporates social distancing as mandated by science and health professionals, by our governments and by common sense. And let us pray to be protected from the scourge that confronts us, that we might feel a sense of comfort and safety that faith brings us.

About the Author
Robert A. Harris is Professor of Bible at The Jewish Theological Seminary, teaching courses in biblical literature and commentary, particularly medieval Jewish biblical exegesis, and is Chair of the Bible Department. Dr. Harris has written several books, and has published many studies in the history of medieval Biblical exegesis in both American and Israeli journals. He also lectures on biblical narrative and Jewish liturgy in congregations and adult education institutes around the country. Dr. Harris has lectured as a visiting professor at universities in Europe and Israel, and has served as a rabbi in several congregations in the United States and Israel.
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