Rabbi Yair Robinson
Parashat Ki Tissa
This coming week I was supposed to be taking the train up to New York to participate in the Hadar Institute’s Rabbinic Yeshiva Intensive, a chance to be with other rabbis of different movements, to be together with colleagues and amazing teachers and just…study. Study Bible, Talmud, rabbinic literature. No best practices, no programs to push. Just study, without having to think about how we would use it, or teach it. Sure they feed us, and it’s good to be with colleagues, to support and be supported by one another, but the study, the learning, is a wonderful way to recharge the batteries, to replenish lost resources. Similarly, a week later, I was supposed to go to the CCAR conference in Baltimore, and be with Reform colleagues and classmates, to learn and be. I was supposed to, except both conferences got cancelled. Covid-19 had forced the hands of the organizers of both events, like so many other conferences, concerts, sporting events and the like. And losing those two conferences, those two opportunities to be with other rabbis, really bummed me out. Sure, I’d get the money back, and they moved a lot of the program online, but there is no substitution for that human connection, the ability to be in the same room with each other. There’s no replacing the Hebrew Union Collage class roll call, as our newest colleagues get to stand for the first time, and our oldest colleagues are celebrated. I get it, I totally get it, but I’m sad about it.
If that’s how I’m feeling—sad, bummed out, in a state with so far only one confirmed case— how must people be feeling now in states with dozens of cases? People who are immunocompromised, or who are older and therefore might be more vulnerable to the virus? Or those who cannot stay home for whatever reason? Or who have loved ones stuck in quarantine en route hither or yon? Angry? Anxious? Afraid? I don’t mean the panic that causes people to hoard toilet paper (which, really?), but the real fear of getting sick, or getting someone else sick. Of lost wages or opportunities. Of things being out of our control.
It’s times like this that we are reminded that so much in life is out of our hands. The stock market, the price of oil, the way a communicable disease is handled or not. In so many ways, I am a leaf on the wind. I can protect my finances to the best of my ability, I can maintain social distancing and practice good hygiene, and all of that helps, to be sure. But none of it gives me back my sense of control, or perhaps the illusion of control.
So, we are reminded of the words of the Chasidic master Nachman of Bratzlav.
ודע שהאדם צריך לעבור גשר צר מאד מאד והכלל והעיקר שלא להתפחד כלל
And know that a person will have to cross a very, very narrow bridge and that the rule and key principle is not to get caught up in the fear.
These words from Nachman’s Likutei Moharan, were adapted to a song that many of us are familiar with: “all the world is a narrow bridge, the important thing is not to be afraid at all. “ But the original text has a different nuance. It’s not that the whole world is a narrow bridge. And truth be told, if we take a minute to walk away from the news that causes us to hyperventilate, we can see much good in the world, hopefully in our own world. But we know that sometimes, we have to cross those narrow bridges, those tight liminal spaces where our movement is constricted and perhaps even dangerous. And in those moments, our task is to not get caught up in the fear. Not not be afraid; trying to not feel something is neither helpful nor authentic to our experience. It is important to recognize how we feel about the things we can’t control. But that doesn’t mean we have to let them dictate our actions and behaviors. We don’t have to give in to the fear, to get caught up in it.
Easier said than done, right? So much of what it means to be an ethical human is to not let our passions, our emotions, drive and dictate our behavior, but to have some awareness of them and control over them. That’s what Mussar—Jewish Ethical Practice–is, on one level. That’s what mindfulness is. That’s what we’re all trying to do. And it’s one thing to do that when things are relatively calm; it’s another thing when the volume is turned way up. So what do we do?
I would suggest that’s where our Torah reading comes in. Shabbat, the idea of a day of rest, is presented with a certain urgency by God.
אַ֥ךְ אֶת־שַׁבְּתֹתַ֖י תִּשְׁמֹ֑רוּ כִּי֩ א֨וֹת הִ֜וא בֵּינִ֤י וּבֵֽינֵיכֶם֙ לְדֹרֹ֣תֵיכֶ֔ם לָדַ֕עַת כִּ֛י אֲנִ֥י יְהוָ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם׃
Nevertheless, you must keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the ages, that you may know that I the Eternal have consecrated you.
The text goes on to remind the reader that Shabbat is to be observed for all time as a sign of our covenant with God, and that the penalty for violating Shabbat is quite severe; to be cut off from one’s community, effectively a death sentence. When we talk about Shabbat there is a tendency to discuss it in those punitive terms—rest, or else! No doing anything that makes your life convenient! Or we think of it in terms of leisure. I cannot believe that a day of rest was ever meant to be inconvenient, and I have trouble thinking that the Torah intends for us to be focused on rest ‘only’ as leisure. Rather, I’d suggest that Shabbat is something more radical; a chance for us to replenish our own capability to respond to the needs around us. A moment to step back from the chaos and tumult, to practice a kind of social distancing of the soul that, without it, we may find ourselves increasingly traumatized. The focus in the Talmud on Shabbat and crossing boundaries is an apt one. In moments like this, our boundaries, our sense of integrity, are constantly under threat, and Shabbat—a day for stepping back from the constant barrage of media and confusion and heightened anxiety—helps us reassert ourselves. Does that mean Shabbat restores control? In a sense; the observance of Shabbat gives us resources to help us restore control over ourselves and our reactions. Shabbat gives us the opportunity to not get caught up in the fear, no matter now narrow the bridge may be.
We could, and should, have a longer conversation about what Shabbat means when we have to be physically distant in times like this, especially when we practice withing the context of community, so that we don’t feel isolated. Nevertheless, let us keep Shabbat and observe it. I cannot control my surroundings or my circumstances, but I can affirm the holiness around me, what is sacred in life, and take reassurance from it. May each of us be able to do so, and find our fear abated, as we say, amen.