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What is Being Asked of Us? The COVID Pandemic and Personal Responsibility

Yesterday, I met Cantor Amy, Ross Levy (videographer), Adam Guth (sound engineer), Jeff Miller (trumpet and shofar) and Marlene Adler (photographer) to tape the Shofar segments of the High Holy Day services and take pictures for the holy day videos. It was just six of us in our giant 900 seat sanctuary trying to create the experience of the holidays and a full house all in the “beauty of holiness” and in the middle of an empty house. The room was warm and bleached with the afternoon light so many of us love and associate with the High Holy Day experience at KI. We worked hard. Jeff’s shofar notes were on the mark. We were filled with high purpose and now we pray that we created a moment you will experience on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that will be authentic and moving. We gave it our all: strong voices, sweat and a lot of heart.

These taping sessions will be going on for much of the month of August. They are complex but necessary. They are “what is being asked of us” at this extraordinary moment, months deep into the pandemic with no light at the end of the tunnel.

But the true poignancy of the moment did not hit me until our taping session was over. It was when I walked outside and looked at our empty playground that a deep sense of loss overcame me. You see, we had to make a decision about our Preschool and we decided we could not safely open this fall. It is simply too dangerous for our kids, their families, and our staff. No matter how many precautions we take, COVID-19 is too vicious an enemy for an institution to combat. We are not a hospital. We do not have the resources of a highly endowed private school. We provide enrichment, joy, and happy memories. Hopefully, a vaccine will be developed and our whole population will be inoculated in the coming months or year and we will go back to a new normal.

I hope so. Shofar sounds in an empty sanctuary and the striking image of a childless playground are not what I want. But I believe that they are what we need to keep our community safe.

In this week’s Torah portion, Eikev, there is a powerful message in Deuteronomy 10:12. In Hebrew it asks, “v’atah yisrael, mah adonai eloheh-cha sho-ail may-ee-mach,” “‘And now O Israel, what does the Eternal your God ask of you”

A very similar verse appears in the Book of Micah, an 8th century BCE prophet from the Kingdom of Judah. Like Moses, Micah taught, “higgid l’cha adam, mah tov oo-mah Adona doe-resh mim-cha,” “It has been told you, humankind, what is good and what the Eternal seeks of you?”

Judaism’s response to Moses and Micah is clear, “to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Right now, at this moment, each one of us as individuals, as members of synagogues, as members of the Jewish community, as citizens of Philadelphia and the surrounding counties, as Americans and as human beings are all being asked “What is being demanded of your?  What is the right path?” How should I quarantine? When do I wear a mask? What is best for me? What is necessary for my neighbor? What do I have to give up? How I am supposed to deal with my sense of disconnection and personal loss? When will I enjoy the full physical embrace of a friend, a grandchild, or a distant sibling?

All of us are being addressed personally and collectively by our tradition, by our country and by our consciences, “What is being asked of me right now?” None of us have ever lived through anything like this before. There are, thankfully, public health policies based on science and the hope that we have enduring spirits and personal emotional reserves which will get us through the tunnel of darkness that we are in and back into the light of life! But until then, we need to be strong, to be willing to sacrifice, to show love by pulling back from life and finding ways of staying together while existing apart!

“And now, what is being asked of you?” In a word, a great deal. Empty sanctuaries, childless playgrounds, masks, and lots of personal hygiene. Most of all, we are asked to remain loving, kind, merciful and humble. We are asked to remember our foundational values and to be strong. We are asked to remain human, humane, and giving. We are asked to persevere and with faith, neighborly support, and inner strength. Together, we will endure!


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, Ph.D.

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