In March 2020, a theory emerged that many people loved. By April 2020, it had been completely shot down. I am talking about the idea that coronavirus, or life in lockdown, had an equalizing effect. It did not discriminate against anyone! Whether you were rich or poor, whatever job you had, wherever you lived in the world, it did not matter. We were all being made to suffer from this virus and we all had to come together to fight it.
The issue is that, in many ways, that is the opposite of the truth. It is when you are locked down at home that the differences in quality of life really emerge. As a teacher at school, I could not tell which kids were richer or poorer and who could afford nicer clothes (I am British and they all wore school uniforms). I could not tell who has food provided to eat comfortably at the dinner table and who struggles to put food on the table. I could not tell who has better living conditions or who has a nicer family dynamic. It is all hidden. These students can escape those differences when they go to school. As can all people when they go to work and are busy with their daily lives. Yet when we are all stuck at home, that is when differences really start to emerge.
We often hear that Shabbat also supposedly has this equalizing effect. We read this week that Shabbat was instituted after the Jews left Egypt (Devarim 5:15) This is because, whether you are a slave or a master, the way of getting true freedom is through a concept like Shabbat. Slave or master, high in society or low in society, these differences are immaterial on Shabbat. Society is put on hold and everyone is equal. As Rabbi Sacks writes, “above all else, Shabbat is covenantal time, the working out of Judaism’s vision of a society of equal dignity and hope.” (Rabbi Sacks – A Letter in the Scroll, p. 138)
But is that always the case? When we see someone in shul, they are equal with us in that snapshot moment of Shabbat, while we are in shul together…but what happens when we leave the shul gates and head home? What happens for the rest of Shabbat? Are they stuck at home with a bad family dynamic or without having proper food on the table? Can we bring them to a social gathering or invite them over to join our family for a Shabbat meal? We need to be the ones who fulfill the vision Rabbi Sacks describes. We need to step up and take action if we are to truly partner with HaShem in making Shabbat that equalizing experience.
This essay is part of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah’s weekly parsha wisdom. Each week, graduates and students of YCT share their thoughts on the parsha, refracted through the lens of their rabbinates and the people they are serving, with all of us.