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When The Threat Is Random, The Jewish Response Is Compassion

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This piece was originally published in the New York Jewish Week on March 23, 2020, at the URL https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/when-the-threat-is-random-the-jewish-response-is-compassion/

“In the face of terrorism, we step forward to act on our values. But a virus doesn’t stand for anything, and retreat is the best course of action.”

These were the words spoken by a wise member of the board of Reconstructing Judaism when I consulted with him about whether to cancel a major multi-city event on which he and others, volunteer and staff, had been working for months.

He is right: after September 11, after Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, after the shooting attack on the three congregations that met at Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, people from all streams of life gathered together — spontaneously and by invitation — to take comfort and express their values of vibrant and inclusive interconnection.

As a rabbi, my prescription for most every challenge, drawn out of millennia of Jewish wisdom and practice, is community: come together, learn from and lean on each other, draw strength from the collective. Yet most of the societal challenges in my lifetime could be understood as crises of values and meaning, rather than the random and impersonal havoc wreaked by a highly contagious molecule. What is the Jewish response when the best way to slow down contagion is by “social distancing”?

We canceled the gathering, even before the mandates started coming down from state and federal governments. As agonizing as the decision felt as we were making it, almost immediately afterward the decision seemed inevitable. And now, with so many others, I’m deep into trying to figure out this strange new reality—both personally and as a rabbi.

The first lesson, I think, is a deep exploration of the Jewish mandate for piku’akh nefesh, saving a life, which overrides any other law or requirement. This mandate provides a Jewish rationale for social distancing. We must retreat from intensive physical interaction in order to “flatten the curve,” slow the virus’ spread and prevent the overwhelming of our health care system.

But this retreat need not be isolating. Many of us yearn to go “on retreat” so that we can rest, recharge, learn. For those of us without childcare or family responsibilities and with economic security, this period could be an opportunity for deepening our practices, working on bringing mindfulness to our actions, seeking wisdom. (For those struggling to care for young children or other family members, this period surely won’t feel like a retreat. Constant togetherness can, despite all the frustration it will surely bring, serve to deepen family connections.)

The noun “nefesh” means living being or soul; verbs built from it mean to take a breath or refresh oneself. The biblical command to observe Shabbat recounts that after creating the world in six days, God ceased work\ and did this verb — breathed, refreshed, ensouled (Exodus 31:16-17). In the effort to save others’ lives by retreating, it is possible that we can find ways to renew ourselves. (Click here for a virtual Shabbat box, a multisensory experience of Shabbat.)

And physical distancing need not mean social disconnection. In this miraculous time of connectivity, we can reach out to others via email, telephone, video conference, social media. We can convene for social gatherings, meetings, and even services. Many non-Orthodox communities are live-streaming services and teaching opportunities and finding ways of connecting with community through phone trees and other forms of outreach. It is essential that we fight against the diseases of despair, which are fueled by loneliness and isolation, by finding ways to connect and foster community virtually.

And it is equally essential that we make efforts to fight the tendency to turn inward and prevent compassion from shriveling up by practicing it as robustly as possible, as often as possible.

We need to practice compassion on ourselves in these challenging times and with the people we love, and we need to practice compassion with people we don’t know. Many of the people most deeply at risk of being infected are already vulnerable due to age, disability or poverty. Judaism teaches that we must care for the widow, the orphan, the poor — those on the fringes of society. As this crisis unfolds, we must give thought to ensuring that people on the edge do not fall off it. Give funds to your local food banks and investigate safe ways to volunteer. Lobby your congresspeople for increased access to nutrition assistance, paid sick leave, a moratorium on evictions.

And finally, we must orient ourselves toward not knowing and still finding joy. The arc of the disease, the possibilities for intervention, the horizons of restriction are, at this point, unknown to us. At some point we will look back and tell the story of COVID-19 and how it progressed and changed us. Right now, we are in the midst of that story. Judaism teaches us that we choose life, we create joy even in the midst of uncertainty and sorrow. Community helps. Ritual helps.

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift, yet there is much wisdom that can help us navigate our way. Let us practice piku’akh nefesh as expansively as possible. Let us preserve life as a general principle by retreating wisely. Let us breathe life and soul into our own particular lives by connecting deeply.

President, Reconstructing Judaism; Aaron and Marjorie Ziegelman Presidential Professor, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College