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Coronavirus — What Are We Learning? #625

05/01/2020 05:25:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

Coronavirus: What Are We Learning?

Recently, as I was speaking with a colleague about how his congregation was managing during the pandemic, he sighed and posed a question: "When, I wonder, will things get back to normal?"

I replied, "I think we are in the new normal."

Indeed, the loss of more than 65,000 Americans during the current coronavirus epidemic is — at minimum — heartbreaking, and in most ways, obscene and scandalous.

The current plague has decimated our senior community and has called into question the safety of many of our assisted living and group homes — places mandated to protect and care for our most vulnerable.

In particular, the poor, the homeless, minorities, the incarcerated and others living in close quarters have been inequitably punished. The loss and grief has been incalculable. 

Yet, there have also been cracks of light within the darkness. We are learning much about ourselves, our habits, our blessings, our excesses, and especially what we truly need to live in 2020.

Major League Baseball, the Stanley Cup and NBA finals have been shelved. Yet somehow we are still alive.

Many of us are working from home; somehow the work is getting done. We have become more sensitive to — and appreciative of — the herculean daily efforts of our health care workers, EMS professionals, 911 operators, postal workers, those who deliver our online purchases, the people stocking our supermarket shelves and checking out our orders, as well as those behind the counters at pharmacies and hardware stores. 

The list seems endless.

Indeed, as the depression was to our grandparents, and the Second World War was to our parents, this time — and its aftermath — will be etched in our memories and those of our children.

This week's Torah portion is titled Acharei-Mot — referring to a time after the death of two of Moses' nephews — sons of Aaron, the head priest.

It happens to be paired with another, more famous, Parashah-Kedoshim — which contains perhaps the best known line of the entire Torah — "And you shall honor your neighbor as yourself."

But let's focus now on the lesser quoted Parashah-Acharei-Mot — "after the death" of Nadav and Avihu.

This week I'm thinking about the word "after."

How is life going to be "after" this current situation subsides?

How will you be changed? How will our children be changed? How will the workplace be changed? How will religion be changed?

On a normal Shabbat, evening and morning, prior to the pandemic, we attracted between 30-40 participants to services. Most were either parents or grandparents.

But now, on Zoom, we are averaging almost 200 per Friday night; they are younger, of different backgrounds and faiths. People enjoy being able to drop in and out. They appreciate not having to dress up or commit to a lengthy service.

They seem to be looking to religion as an oasis of comfort during these challenging times. Isn't that what religion is supposed to be?

During this past month amidst dueling government tropes, we have learned so much about ourselves.

We have also learned to take care of each other: Our neighbors, our friends, those who previously got only a passing nod.

Are we cherishing life more? Are we calling our parents or grandparents more to ensure they are okay? Are we taking second and third looks at our spouses and children every day, reminding ourselves how blessed we are? Are we inclining ourselves more towards the hungry, the poor, those among us who have lost their jobs?

We have been calling seniors and others who have been physically and technologically isolated to make sure they have enough food and medication — or just to talk.

There is much to think about when we consider the "after."

This week, our ritual committee began talking about the High Holidays. What will they look like? Can you see 500 souls gathering together next September 18, the way it's always been?

I want to share two small events that occurred this week: Rabbis and cantors more and more are presiding at virtual shivas — those communal gatherings we observe after someone loses a loved one.

This week, I presided over a Zoom shiva, which included virtual participation from Indiana, California, Massachusetts and, of course, New York. 

Each person shared a story about the departed and extended their sincere condolences to the bereaved.

It was eye-to-eye. It was heartfelt, perhaps even more so than when we gather in person.

I thought about more of that in the "after."

This week I also received an email from the rabbi of St. Maarten — where Patte and I have vacationed.

I clicked on the Zoom link provided, and before I knew it, I was transported to a small Caribbean Island, within a small Torah study class with others confined to their dens, studies or living rooms. 

The feeling of embracing the new normal was exhilarating.

Indeed, this current situation, with its reduced personal space, social distancing and feelings of common helplessness has brought out our love, empathy and compassion.

It has facilitated a revolution — in some ways for good within the religious world — where those who are searching, those thirsty for spirituality and human contact can gather on a checkerboard video screen and offer these simple words — "Hello, how are you?"

And once we digest the pain and loss the coronavirus has caused, perhaps we can assess how each of us has changed for the better.

This week's Torah portion, which describes the aftermath of the death of two lesser known Biblical characters, inspires to take a second look at those people around us who every day maintain our health and safety.

Let us think about them, about how precious life is, and about how we are now living in a new normal.

There will be an end to this. But, what will we have learned?

How will we be changed in the "after?"

Shabbat Shalom, v'kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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Mon, July 6 2020 14 Tammuz 5780