This moment calls for calm and caution for this moment is dangerous. We are facing an unprecedented challenge in our lifetimes. No other illness has caused so much uncertainty. With a shudder I watch the spread of COVID-19 and feel great concern for those with the coronavirus and for all of us trying to negotiate safely. In such a moment, we are wise to pause for clarity as to the path forward. I leave it to the medical experts to guide us on the nature of the illness and how best to protect ourselves and each other. Let me share three guideposts from a spiritual perspective:
1. Health Comes First: Act Cautiously
In the teachings of our Jewish sages, “V’chai ba’hem”-“And you should live by them” (Leviticus 18:5) is the Biblical mandate regarding the fulfillment of the commandments. Pikuach nefesh, the saving of a life, takes precedence. As a people we have a memory of repeated epidemics in human history that inform our response to this moment. Rabbi Yisroel Salanter, the master teacher of Jewish ethics, demanded in 1848 that his congregants eat on Yom Kippur when cholera was rampant and he did not exempt himself. The Hebrew word pikeach, which means “to save” also means “to keep open” and “skilled.” We need to keep our eyes open vigilantly in order to act skillfully, all the more in responding to danger. Following the guidance of the medical experts is essential.
2. Collective Responsibility: We Are Intertwined
Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a sage of Israel of the 2nd century, told of a group of people who were traveling by boat. One of them took a drill and began to bore a hole under his seat. His companions shouted, “Why are you doing this?”
The man replied, “What concern is it of yours? Am I not drilling under my own place?”
They said to him, “But you will flood the boat for all of us!” (Leviticus Rabbah 4:6).
Regarding the rapid spread of COVID-19, now is the time to support each other locally and internationally. We are in this together. Our tradition teaches that all peoples are part of an extended family. When the rabbis discussed the most important verse in the Bible, Rabbi Ben Azzai of the 2nd century, Israel pointed to Genesis (5:1): “This is the record of Adam’s line- When G-d created Adam, G-d did so in the likeness of G-d” (TJ Ned. 9). Now is the time to avoid pointing fingers at others as the source of the illness. Now is the time, to see the world from the point of view of a caring, shared Creator: concerned about our collective health.
Rather than as an act of passivity thrust upon us, let us view this time of hunkering down in our homes as communal ferocity toward stopping the virus.
3. Calm and Hope: This Too Shall Pass
The economy is suffering and will continue to decline as long as the coronavirus spreads. These are such stressful times. Be gentle with yourself and kind to those around you. Be aware of our moral responsibility to help those most in economic and emotional need
The Jewish folktale describes King Solomon directing his jeweler to engrave on a signet ring, “This too shall pass.” The wise king said, “When I look at the ring during good times, I will be reminded not to take the goodness for granted and when times are troubled, the saying will give me hope.” Knowing that blights in the past are gone offers hope. For now, stay connected, calm, and kind, aware that this too shall pass.
RABBI ElIE SPITZ is the spiritual leader of Congregation B’nai Israel of Tustin.