Many of us were at the edge of our seats this past week, as we awaited some important news; would our children go back to school in Delaware, and how? The state department of education released their guidance this past week, after some amount of controversy, as many of the state legislators on the task force resigned feeling their concerns were not heard. If the hope was for a document that had been written with thoughtfulness and compassion, that was certainly produced. If the hope was for some certainty for the fall, well, that hope was dashed. No school district has announced plans yet, of course; and we won’t know really for several more weeks what the fall will look like. This document is to provide guidance for those school districts as they try to plan for September. So much of what is in the document is conditional on so many other factors, including community spread of COVID19. And, as has been the case before, the response to the pandemic exposes another aspect of inequality in our community, as it lays bear the lack of resources so many of our schools have to effectively respond. And all of this is taking place with the backdrop of the national debate around schools, with some pushing for ‘normalcy’ from a far distance, while many in our communities—parents, educators, administrators, students and others—are agonizing over how and whether this can be done equitably.
Indeed, so much of what we’re learning about our society is how inequitable, how unfair it really is. It is possible for a private school or a wealthy district to maintain small classroom sizes and put protocols in place to keep people healthy, while many urban schools and larger districts struggled even before the pandemic to have soap in all the dispensers in the bathrooms. We have asked our schools to make do with less for decades, and even now, so much of the discussion around schools is as much about how to warehouse children safely so their parents can work rather than about the educational needs of those kids, or the health needs of those staffers.
That this is how the conversation is going, by the way, after four months of pandemic-life, should give us pause, because it reflects the conversation we were having at the beginning about ‘essential’ workers. Now, do we add the teacher, the coach, the cafeteria worker, the bus driver and others to that list of essential? And do we recognize that what we mean by that word? Essential, of course, becoming a euphemism for underpaid and over exposed; those whose work both prevented them from being in quarantine and maximized their likelihood of exposure, and spread. The essential worker is the person who lacks the resources—financial and political—to be able to protect themselves. Their work may be essential, but we have declared them as people to be disposable. Why else do so many of our fellow citizens refuse to socially distance or wear a mask in their presence, where they do not have the ability to remove themselves?
In the Torah Cantor just recited, we hear again the names of Zelophechad’s daughters, and last week we talked about how important it is to hear their names; that saying their names recognizes their humanity. Here, we hear them again, right before the end of the book of Numbers. But this time, the order is different; Tirzah comes before Noah this time. Should that matter? Such a little thing? But we know that small changes in the Torah can lead to great understanding. One text of the Talmud suggests that in the first text, they are in age order, and in the second in order of wisdom; another suggests that this time they are in the order of who got married first. But Rashi, our favorite medieval French rabbi, disagrees. Instead, he quotes the midrash to indicate that the order is changed to tell you that they were all of equal worth with one another. Irrespective of age, marriage, wisdom, or any other marker of prominence, they are all equal to one another.
They are all equal to one another.
Needless to say, we need to work at that.
So let us affirm to do so, and to recognize the impact of our choices as individuals and a society, lest we somehow think we are more deserving, more worthy, than others. Harold Kushner and Nahum Sarna, in their comments, reminds us that this section of Torah is not mere recapitulation or postscript; “it implements at the individual level the grand vision of social justice…”. That is our task, because social justice isn’t something that happens only in Leg Hall or City Hall or in some far off, theoretical place; it must happen in our own lives, by remembering that each of us, all of us are truly, and equally, essential.