The Talmud, the great corpus of Jewish law, literature, and lore, teaches us about the power of routines. In the tractate entitled Shabbat, the Sages discuss when we can engage in certain routine aspects of our day, and when we have to put them on hold:
“Immediately before the time of the afternoon prayers, a person may not: go to the barber, enter the bathhouse, go to work in a tannery, sit down to a meal, or judge a case” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat, page 9a).
According to the Talmud, a person needs to stop their daily activities when it is time to pray. Respect for God comes before any other quotidian task no matter how hungry we are, how much work we have to do, or how much we need that haircut. After all, the Sages surmise, shouldn’t we take a moment to thank our Creator, without whom the world would not exist for us to enjoy?
At this moment in time, our routines are also interrupted. The things that we often take for granted: going to the gym, eating a meal in a restaurant, heading to the office, are all on temporary hiatus as we face this pandemic. However, instead of pausing our lives to pray to God, we are pausing for a different, but no less important, purpose: to protect those around us.
The other night, Dr. Sanjay Gupta appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. During his interview, he said: “What I’m really struck by is that never before have I found a situation where how I behave so dramatically impacts your health and how you behave so dramatically impacts my health.” Colbert adds: “It’s not just you…my behavior toward you is going to affect your parents in their late seventies.” We are living in a time where our choices directly impact the lives of those we encounter. Though we are all facing unique disappointments and struggles during this time, we have made the important choice to pause our routines, postpone festivities, stay home, and thereby protect the most vulnerable in our society.
Long before COVID-19, the Sages of the Talmud knew about the power of our human connections. They teach us: “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh ba’zeh” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shevuot, page 39a). This phrase is usually translated to mean: “All Israel is responsible for each other.” But this translation does not go far enough to capture the essence of this statement. The word “arev” means “guarantor” and the preposition “ba’” means “through.” In this statement, the Rabbis teach us that we are completely dependent on each other; we are the guarantors of each other’s existence. My life is made more certain and stable through your actions, and vice versa. The Rabbis know that we are not mere individuals. We are a single unit, ensuring the well-being of the whole by adjusting the actions of the parts.
Right now, our day job is not necessarily our main job. For the coming weeks and months, we are all primarily serving as holy guarantors of one another, honoring the Divine by protecting each other. And just maybe, when this is all over, and we go back to our work, to restaurants, and to the barber shop, this sense of our sacred interconnectedness and dependence on one another will remain.
As we all engage in this holy task of remaining physically distant, we are always here for you. If you are seeking communal connection, we hope that you will join JCP’s many educational and spiritual offerings via Zoom and social media. And of course, anyone on our JCP staff is just a phone call away. After all, our sacred interconnectedness always remains.