The phrase “Social Distancing” has now entered our vocabulary. Each day brings new instructions on quarantining ourselves, limiting the scope of our activities or distancing ourselves from human contact in the midst of the Covid19 epidemic. Social distancing impacts our body and spirit. Humans are social creatures. How can we draw on the strength of community in this time of need when we are being instructed (please follow those instructions!) to move and stay far apart?
In early March we read from Parshat Ki Tissa (EXODUS 30:11) which includes making donations to ward off plagues and hand washing to stay holy, I shared three texts that challenge us to think about how we are reacting individually and as a community in this time of social distancing.
Some rabbinical thoughts from DavidWolpe: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2009/02/in-a-place-where-there-are-no-men/9587/
In the Mishna, Hillel declares, “In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.” This is usually taken to mean that when other people are acting in an indifferent or cowardly fashion, one should stand up and be a mature, courageous human being. But it could also mean that one should act as a mensch — a decent person — when there are no others around, in a place where there literally are no men. G-d may be always watching, but many of us care less for G-d’s good opinion than for that of our neighbors. So we may have to fall back on the old standby — strength of character, the kind of rock solid soul that would lead one to be heroic, even alone, on a desert island.
Social Distancing demands that we stand alone. Rabbi Wolpe’s response to the words of Hillel from the Mishna ring so true to me. The further we stand apart, the more we have to work at being menschen. We have to work to bring the best of our humanity forward. If we are physically isolated, we need to remember not to let that drain us, but rather empower us to reach out to create a spiritual and virtual, caring community. One prayer from the Siddur Lev Shalom gave body to the image in my mind and the impulse in my heart.
In the beginning
In the beginning G-d created the heavens that actually are not
(they are infinite, unbound and undefinable)
and the earth that wants to touch them.
In the beginning G-d created threads stretching between them –
between heavens that are not
and the earth that cries out for help.
And G-d created humans, for each person is a prayer and a thread touching what is not
with a tender and delicate touch.
[ Rivka Miriam (translated by David C Jacobson page 153 of Siddur Lev Shalem)
Our grip and ability to connect may be tenuous, but if we make the effort, if we throw out lifelines and calls of caring, it will draw people together and give us strength as we face this incredible challenge. We have the thread and the prayer, and that is powerful. We know that these connections are not one sided. As we reach out, we create networks of spiritual and social energy that sustain and energize, pushing back against the anxiety, fear and exhaustion of this unparalleled reality. We must make sure, with all our heart, our soul and might, not to let social distancing become social isolation. We have to pull together in very different ways as the world cracks around us. We might have to stay in our homes and not come to Temple Beth Shalom, but we can still create a House of Shalom – wholeness, harmony and peace.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz