At our GatherDC team meeting yesterday, our Executive Director, Rachel Gildiner asked the staff to consider the paradoxes we are sitting with in this very stressful and uncertain time. For me, the Jewish concept of “choosing life” immediately came to mind (see Deuteronomy 30:19 below).
Over the centuries, this idea has come to mean several things, which today, feel increasingly at odds with one another. On the one hand, the imperative to choose life has meant that we must protect our physical well-being and that of each other, at all costs. This principle has come to be known as pikuach nefesh, the saving of life and its importance outweighs almost every other Jewish principle, including keeping Shabbat.
Judaism is a tradition about prioritizing the lives we live and the bodies that enable us to do that. In this regard, we, of course, need to be taking the necessary precautions to stay physically and mentally healthy, and to support our overburdened medical system, even when it means physically isolating ourselves from people and community.
On the other hand, choosing life is about establishing a sense of groundedness, connectedness, and joy when life feels absurd and chaotic. But, how do we cultivate this when we’re not around other people?; When the meaningful and energizing activities and gatherings we’re a part of are canceled?; When we’re potentially suspicious of everyone and everything all around us?
Hopefully, the precautions we’re now taking will be temporary. But, in the face of ongoing physical isolation and survival-mode mentalities, we need to find a way to stay well emotionally, spiritually, and relationally. As this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa in the Book of Exodus reminds us, anxiety around our sense of stability can lead us down a chaotic and ultimately, unhelpful path.
After being liberated from slavery and following an uncharted path to freedom through a vast desert, the Israelites freak out when their trusted leader Moses is delayed coming down Mount Sinai, where he received the Torah on their behalf. The text tells us, “When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down the mountain, the people gathered against Aaron [Moses’ brother] and said,
“Make us a god who will go before us for that man Moses, who brought us from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has happened to him” (Exodus 32:1).
What ensues is the making of the Golden Calf, a physical representation of God that they begin to worship. This was just days after they received the Ten Commandments, one of which explicitly says not to make a physical image of God.
What is understandable in this situation is that in the physical absence of the one stable presence they had since leaving Egypt and their mediator to the divine – Moses – the people felt untethered. They did what we all do in such moments when we feel out of control, they grasped at simple answers, acted against their better judgement, and gave in to their greatest fears. According to traditional Jewish commentators, they were so consumed by doubt that they actually just miscounted the day Moses had told them he’d be back (see this wild story in Talmud, Shabbat 89a below).
It’s important to realize that the Israelites’ misstep was not about trying to reclaim agency in a time of crisis. Judaism tells us to act when we can make a difference. In their panicking, the people reverted to another people’s way of worship. They sought to wholly submit themselves to a tangible deity of their own making, rather than trusting in their relationship with Moses and the God who brought them out of Egypt, or as Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan called it, “the power that makes for salvation.”
Similarly, when we act out of desperation, we run the risk of losing ourselves, forgetting about the most vulnerable among us, and while grasping for the most immediate, palpable responses, we miss out on opportunities that unfold with patience, thoughtfulness, and collaboration. More than anything, we run the risk of losing hope when things don’t turn out as planned.
So, this Shabbat and the days following, I hope we can take the time and space we need to recenter ourselves, to rest, to cry, to eat well, to e-connect with loved ones, and to do replenishing and creative work so that we can continue to meet the demanding needs of our time. That is how we choose life in its fullest sense.
Sending blessings for healing and strength,
I want to conclude by sharing this beautiful poem:
By Lynn Ungar 3/11/20
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.
I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life—so you and your offspring would live.
One has a positive duty to remove and guard oneself of any life-threatening obstacle, as it is said “beware and guard your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: What is the meaning of that which is written: “And the people saw that Moses delayed [boshesh] to come down from the mount” (Exodus 32:1)? Do not read the word in the verse as boshesh; rather, read it as ba’u shesh, six hours have arrived. When Moses ascended on High, he told the Jewish people: In forty days, at the beginning of six hours, I will come. After forty days, Satan came and brought confusion to the world by means of a storm, and it was impossible to ascertain the time. Satan said to the Jews: Where is your teacher Moses? They said to him: He ascended on High. He said to them: Six hours have arrived and he has not yet come. Surely he won’t. And they paid him no attention. Satan said to them: Moses died. And they paid him no attention. Ultimately, he showed them an image of his death-bed and an image of Moses’ corpse in a cloud. And that is what the Jewish people said to Aaron: “For this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1).
About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.
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