There is a constant barrage of ambulances that are heard every day, at least once or twice every hour in Brooklyn. They are everywhere.
We haven’t taken a step outside of the house in almost two weeks. We have food, water, medical supplies, internet. We can continue to work on both personal and professional projects (we both work primarily from home under normal circumstances). We are safe. Our children are fine. We have each other. We are lucky.
But the ambulances.
We might be safe, yet I am petrified. People I know are beginning to die. People of all ages, genders, nationalities, religions. After many years of forgetting, now, when I awake in the morning, I mumble modah ani lifanecha… as I reach for my phone to see what tragic news awaits me about the pandemic. Who have we lost? How many more cases have been identified? How much worse must it get before it begins to get better? In our present predicament, with the lack of necessary testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), and in-depth knowledge about the virus that attacks us, the questions are all but unanswerable.
However, there are small things that are still within our control.
Many years ago, I attended an extraordinary lecture by our teacher Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, who taught about the need to balance our Jewish ritual observance with complementary ethical behavior. His teaching is forever etched in my soul regarding how we should react when hearing the sounds of an ambulance.
In the name of his teacher Reb Zalman, Telushkin taught that when we hear the screaming sirens of an emergency vehicle, we should try not to be annoyed. He said we should not simply pause the conversation and wait for the screeching sound to cease. Rather, at that moment, we should pray. Pray hard. Pray deeply for the well-being of that person in need of emergency help. Pray El na r’fa na la. Pray for healing for the infirmed. Pray for those heroic medical professionals who put themselves at risk daily, and ask for those healers to be sheltered from harm.
I’ve been praying a lot lately. Maybe you have as well.
I know it will take much, much more than a prayer for us to make it to the other side of this pandemic. I do not believe that we will emerge whole. Instead, we will surface into a world that is wildly different than the one that we have left so abruptly. I already feel brokenness that I fear will never be mended.
Whatever happens, I think that we are in the throes of a radically transformative phase of world history. The ways that we act now, the ways in which we treat each other, our loved ones and the stranger alike, will directly determine the trajectory of society. And if we look at the ethical and moral teachings of our people, I truly believe that we will find guidance.
When we take a moment to say a prayer as an ambulance screams by, we aren’t simply praying for the infirmed. At that moment, we are showing that we haven’t forgotten who and what we are. We are connecting with our tradition, with our Creator, with our people and our traditions. And with that prayer, God-willing, we are contemplating what actions we can take from the safety of our homes to help bring this crisis to an end, even if it is just staying home.