And Then There is the Silence

And then there is the silence.

The silence that connotes fear. The silence that expresses concern. The silence that projects concentration. The silence that opens up to a new reality, to our lives changed yet again as the result of human error and human resiliency which teaches us that “what does not kill us can make us stronger.”

The streets of New York City in the age of Covid-19 are quiet and we pass our fellow citizens at the appropriate social distancing measurement of six feet carefully, wordlessly as each of us weighs our radical responsibility to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” It is ironic for such a noisy city. But our quietude is teaching invaluable lessons.

“Shimon ben Gamliel said, ‘All my days I have grown up among the Sages and I have found nothing better than silence’” (Pirkei Avot, 1.17).

Indeed, now is the time to listen. In a world pandemic with our city at the epicenter and having just passed one thousand tragic deaths nationwide as the result of this pernicious virus, it is time to listen.

Listen to the doctors and the scientists. Listen to the healthcare professionals on the frontlines of this monumental battle. Listen to the voices of steady leaders — both civic and business — calling for help, collaboration, cooperation, coordination and focused effort at getting the most important equipment and material to areas most in need.

“Shammai said, ‘Say little, do much’” (Pirkei Avot, 1.15).

Patience with our children and partners and ourselves at this time of heightened anxiety is doing; calling loved ones and caring for the most vulnerable is doing; giving charitably when volunteering is impossible is doing; understanding, especially now, that there is more that unites us than divides us is doing.

This week’s Torah portion, VaYikra, is the first section from the third book of the Torah, Leviticus. It begins with the words, “And He called to Moses and the Eternal spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting.” The scholar Robert Alter notes “According to normative use, one would have expected ‘And the Eternal called to Moses and He spoke to him.’ Is the postponement of the subject a maneuver to isolate and emphasize the act of calling?” (Robert Alter, The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary).

What does it mean for us to “emphasize the act of calling” in the age of the Coronavirus? One might ask in such a moment of calling the fundamental question, “Who am I? And what should I do?”

At JCP, like everywhere, we have shifted our learning and community engagement to the virtual realm and are learning, albeit through the medium of screens, that we are indeed a community of individuals and families connected to one another in profound ways. We are caring for one another, virtually; saying Kaddish together, virtually; learning Torah and singing together, virtually; and plotting our future, our growth, our resilience, our success, virtually — so that we can keep on doing good.

Emphasize the act of calling. Food pantries are hit very hard right now with massive layoffs and unemployment; the hardest hit in our city are those with the least economic security. One easy way to help is to donate to a local food bank.

Here are links to pantries that all get excellent ratings for their use of charitable donations:

Emphasize the act of calling. Heed the advice of the Sages of this crisis. Eat with your health in mind; practice patience; love fully; listen to those who know, not those clamoring for attention.

“Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is wise” (Proverbs 17.28). Imagine that

I want to close this message with a word of gratitude to my remarkable colleagues at JCP. I remain inspired and motivated by their unity, their devotion, their creativity, sense of humor and hope in the midst of this crisis. We are blessed to have them.

And I want to thank you, dear reader, for your support, your generosity, and your own devotion to JCP. We are here for you and you are here for us and in times like this, with so much uncertainty, our cohesion grounds us as we strive for a way out, for an alleviation of this pandemic, and look to better days.

Caring for ourselves means caring for others and caring for others means caring for ourselves. In those silent nods and glances from six feet away, in physical distancing, we are understanding that in a way we are drawing nearer to one another. This is my great hope for JCP, for New York City, and for the world.

“Hillel said, ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’”