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The Virus -- Who Are Our Heroes?  #620

03/27/2020 04:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

The Virus: Who Are Our Heroes?

A colleague earlier this week forwarded an amazing teaching by anthropologist Margaret Mead who at one point was asked what she considered to be the first sign of civilization within a culture.

Was it the development of fish hooks, clay pots or grinding stones?

"No," Mead replied. She declared that the first sign of civilization occurred when someone had broken their femur (thighbone), and then had healed.

Mead explained that within the animal world, if you break your leg, you die. You can't run from danger, drink from the river, or hunt for food. You are meat for predators. 

So, Mead concluded, that "a broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts."

She added, "We are at our best when we serve others."

And that friends, is where we are today.

If the situation we are currently experiencing was not so dangerous, it would be inspiring. Football teams ripping up uniforms to manufacture masks, companies completely changing what they manufacture to produce ventilators or respirators, citizens offering to volunteer or pay for meals, supplies and wages. The list is endless.

In many ways, we are undergoing a values adjustment — from a society too often focused on "me first" to a culture where we are more concerned with healing, and preventing the illness of others.

We may have been deprived of the ability to touch, but not the capacity to connect in spirit.

Some tell their children that they must stay indoors so that they won't catch the coronavirus. This may be true in part. But perhaps the lesson we need to be reinforcing more with children and grandchildren — is that they are heroes.

They are heroes because by staying at home they are saving the lives of others.

I've spoken this week to grandparents, who have yet to hold their newborn granddaughter or grandson.

I've talked with wives and husbands, who cannot enter a hospital to comfort their spouses currently receiving care.

I've heard from people, who have lost parents and grandparents but cannot organize a chapel funeral, or shiva.

In all cases, through this time of sacrifice, we see the common good. However pained, unsure and apprehensive we may be, collectively we are being kind, caring, compassionate and — dare we say — civilized.

This week, we began reading the third book of the Torah. It is titled Vayikra — otherwise known as Leviticus. It is not the most "story laden" book of the Torah.

If you enjoy the specifics of temple rites — particularly animal sacrifices, then this is the book for you. In ancient times, Jews came to the Temple with offerings, mainly to ask forgiveness, to give thanks, to make a request or to praise God.

But let us pause for a moment and think about the significance of Vayikra today. And I mean today.

Sacrifice means giving up or depriving ourselves of something. Indeed, God does not require gifts of meat, birds or grain, nor does God need to inhale sweet smells. Rather, as God says numerous times in the Bible, God wants us to take care of each other and to act in an ethical and civilized way.  

I have been asked frequently this week, "Will praying to God truly end this epidemic?" If the question is, "will God descend from the heavens and intervene," then I cannot in full conscience say, "yes."

But, perhaps God intervenes at a higher level.

The Hebrew verb for the act of prayer is l'hitpalel. Most times when we see the prefix "hit" in Hebrew — it means we are doing something which reflects back upon us.

Do we really think that at the beginning of a football game, when both teams kneel and pray to win, that the eventual winner will have been selected by God for victory?

Rather, the word l'hitpalel conveys a sentiment that our prayers to God will reflect back upon us, to inspire us to be our best, to be caring and compassionate, to find our ethical center, to be what God truly intended us to be.

In this book of the Torah, which speaks so much about sacrifices, let us update the traditional teaching and think about our capacity to sacrifice during these uncertain times.

It's what civilized societies do.

Is it possible that being a little bit bored — and just learning to be quiet — is a small price to pay to prevent some of our most vulnerable neighbors from becoming sick?

Michael Harrington recently composed a letter to the Los Angeles Times, writing: "The truth is that the freedoms we are blessed with today, the abundance we take for granted, were purchased with the incredible sacrifices of a generation whose remaining numbers are now in their 90s and older.

"They are now particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus.

"I'd say it's time for a little payback. If the biggest sacrifice you're asked to make is to stay home and sit on the couch, then for God's sake, do it. We owe it to them and to the healthcare personnel on the front lines of this new battle."

We commend those on the front lines — police, firefighters, EMS crews, 911 operators, and perhaps most of all, doctors, nurses and other health care personnel.

May God protect you and inspire you with strength, wisdom, and creativity. In return, we will do our part and stay home.

And perhaps through that small sacrifice, we can become a tiny fraction of the heroes that you are.

We thank you for your sacrifices. For in a world so bereft of role models, we need more champions like you — a healing force during these fractured times.

May God bless you, as together we move from darkness to light.

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Tue, June 2 2020 10 Sivan 5780