So far a relative few of us are infected by the new world plague -- but suddenly we are all affected.
Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, in 1722 published A Journal of the Plague Year. It is written as if it were a contemporary first-person account of the year 1665, when the bubonic plague struck London. But Defoe was only five years old then. Modern scholars think he drew deeply on the memories of his father. Samuel Pepys, in his famous Diary, actually did write of his daily experiences in 1665.
As people begin to write of their responses to the Coronavirus Plague, I thought to gather a few of their writings. I do not imagine trying to do what either Defoe or Pepys did. After sharing with you a few expressions that have come into my in-box, plus a painful story of my own, I will share my own thoughts about this Plague Year.
A moment in my own Plague Year: I am 86 years old, and my beloved partner Rabbi Phyllis Berman is 77. We belong to three different synagogues in Philadelphia. Last night, an email from one of them: Members who are more than 60 years old should please not come to services this Shabbat – clearly for our own protection, not as an attack. It makes sense. I have no criticism of the request. But it is painful – NOT their fault – to be isolated from community. At just the moment in our lives when we need physical community most, we also need to seek it least, avoid it most.
Every Shabbat for years now, Phyllis and I have helped weave a Torah conversation that intertwines the Torah portion of the week and our own lives, for an hour before the formal prayer. The conversation has become extraordinarily rich, and a community of about a dozen people has grown up. This Shabbat we will do it by Zoom. Who imagined that the time would ever come when we would thank God for Zoom?
Those of us who are elders may be especially vulnerable, but all of us share our vulnerability. So I want to bless whatever means of touch and loving connection you create for yourself.
More thoughts of mine after these messages the flew across the Internet:
-- An ancient text lifted up by Eugene Fleischman Sotirescu, a member of Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia:
"Thou shalt also make a laver of brass, and the base thereof of brass, whereat to wash . . . so they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not; and it shall be a statute for ever to them, . . . throughout their generations."
(Exodus 30:18, 21)
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By Rev. Dr. Lynn Ungar, poet and minister for lifespan learning and editor of Quest for the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love--
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.
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From Rabbi Jill Jacobs, exec of Truah: A Rabbinic Call for Human Rights:
. . . Judaism teaches us the obligation to care for the health and welfare of the entire community. According to Jewish law, members of a community can compel one another to invest in infrastructure that the whole community needs. Jewish law similarly mandates care for the poor and most vulnerable, through tzedakah and other means, and forbids business practices that exploit those with the least power. This ethic runs counter to the American ethos of rugged individualism — of every person for themselves.
COVID-19 has taught us once again how interconnected we are. We cannot pretend to protect ourselves while ignoring those who are most vulnerable.
This pandemic is already revealing the gross inequities of our society. Those without insurance or without adequate insurance may not be able to access needed care. Incarcerated people in New York State are making an emergency stockpile of hand sanitizer for pennies an hour, even while hand sanitizer is banned in most prisons. We are completely unprepared for the likely outbreak of COVID-19 among incarcerated people, among the 38,000 immigrants detained by ICE, or among the more than 50,000 people camped on our border or waiting in Mexican shelters for the chance to apply for asylum. And old prejudices have reared their ugly heads, as Chinese and other Asian people have been vilified and attacked in the streets, and as antisemitic conspiracy theories blame this plague on the Jews — just as the black plague was blamed on us.
No matter how difficult this period may be for us personally, we will never stop raising a moral voice to insist that our government and our community care for every single member of our society — whether born here or elsewhere, whether documented or undocumented, whether seeking asylum from Mexico or within the borders of our country, whether free or incarcerated, and whether insured or uninsured. Nor will we stop fighting for human rights for Israelis and Palestinians, or let the immediate crisis distract us from pushing back against any moves toward annexation and permanent occupation.
That’s what it means to be Jews and religious leaders.
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Long before the Coronavirus struck China, I had been thinking about the Ten Plagues in the Exodus story, and how we could deal with them as we approached Passover and the Christian Holy Week, which is rooted in Passover. Together with Faryn Borella, our rabbinic-student intern at The Shalom Center, we wrote about the storied ancient plagues brought on by a cruel and stubborn Pharaoh and their modern analogues, made far worse by global scorching and the climate crisis. Made far worse by cruel, greedy, stubborn modern Carbon Pharaohs in government and corporations.
We wrote about the ancient Plagues as both horrifying and liberating. How they taught that they made everyone in Egyptian society suffer -- so the Torah goes out of its way to mention that the final Plague, the death of all first-borns, afflicted not only Pharaoh’s son but the first-born of the enslaved Egyptian woman who pushed the millstone to grind grain – the hardest job there was. And how the Plagues also pointed the way to a society that honored every member, sought nourishment for every member.
We shared some ideas about how to make Passover this year not merely a celebration of the past but a moment to create the future of a decent society. An activist moment not of geographic “exodus” but a social “exodus” from Domineering Hierarchy to shape where we live into the Beloved Community -- rooted in the ecological sense of Interbreathing that interweaves all life as sacred.
And then came Coronavirus. Yesterday I wrote a letter to you-all that urged us to demand that our Congressmembers act in the spirit of Passover, demanding emergency decrees and laws for life – the production of millions of tests and their free administration, free treatment and paid sick leave for all who have been infected; emergency unemployment compensation for those made jobless by supply-line close-downs; governmental rentals of hotels whose guests have fled gatherings and airlines, to serve as homes for the homeless who have no “home” in which to isolate themselves. In short, universal health care. And from this emergency, we must learn to make health care available to everyone in “normal” times as well.
The Congress has begun to respond. It is working on bills right now, as I write and you read. I urge you—call 1-202-224-3121 right now, ask for your Senators and House Members, and insist they pass the emergency measures I just listed.
And so with all the Climate Crisis Plagues – wildfires, floods, droughts, famines. -- Our “leaders “ – in China, Iran, the USA – were so focused on protecting their own prestige and power that they hushed and hesitated. Yet communities and -- reluctantly – those same rulers have begun to respond. (Even now, however, Mr. Trump is urging Congress to bail out the oil and gas companies whose stocks have crashed as travel crashed -- with more fervency for these Carbon Pharaohs who have created Carbon Plagues than for bailing out the sick and disemployed. Tell your Congressperson to ignore that notion.)
We can draw on this experience to ask ourselves how to move these rulers and ourselves to act more quickly to respond to thousands of deaths from Climate Plagues -- fires and famines, and fleeing refugees. Can we learn to make a Passover, a Palm Sunday, that makes these Plagues a flag of transformation as the story tells us they were three thousand years ago?
Blessed be YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Holy Interbreathing Spirit of all life Who suffuses us all – humans, other animals, vegetation – with the Breath we share. Blessed be the Breath in our own bodies; help us help each other and our planet to breathe deeply and freely, not choking on a virus or on CO2. --Arthur