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The Spiritual Dimensions of Pandemic
By Rabbi Julia Weisz

Shabbat Shalom. This weekend we read the beginning of Leviticus that details out the sacrifices we were to perform as Israelites. The Hebrew word for sacrifice comes from the same root as draw near. Yes, in fact, draw near.

What an interesting command for us now as we look at this Torah portion thousands of years later during this pandemic. And ironically, last week’s Torah portion was Vayakhel- translated as to gather. Really? To gather? And I have one more for you, the word synagogue comes from the Greek word which means meeting. So to review: We have draw near, gather and meeting. 

All of the things that we as Jews, especially as Congregation Or Ami family members LOVE to do with each other. In times of sadness, celebration, fear, we find one another and cling tight. We put our arms around each other and sing Listen and Hashkivenu. We kiss each other on the cheeks at oneg. We hold hands during a funeral. 

And yet, none of the things we are so comfortable doing, that bring us so much joy, can we do at this time. If we sit in that reality, that we cannot gather or meet or draw near physically, it is quite depressing. 

But, my teacher and one of my rabbis Rabbi David Stern taught me that there are spiritual dimensions to this pandemic that we can learn from, grow and modify so that we can continue to feel equally as close to each other. 

First, we learn that both our body and our souls are God’s creation and therefore holy. Our bodies belong to God and God asks us to take care of ourselves. After all, we are supposed to carry out mitzvot, God’s commandments. Judaism asserts that life is God’s gift to us. Even our Jewish text and rabbis remind us about the importance of staying healthy. 

The second spiritual dimension that this virus has taught us is that we as human beings are fundamentally interconnected. We often try to separate from each other with big walls built around our homes or our communities. But, we are one humanity and one creation of God. 

And the last spiritual dimension is one of opportunity. With travel restrictions, self quarantine, specific numbers allowed in grocery stores, constraint after constraint after constraint. Through them all we are given an opportunity to reset and re center. 

Unitarian Minister, Reverend Lynn Ungar expresses this beautifully in her poem titled “Pandemic.” 

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.
Center down.
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

And so, with these spiritual dimensions-healthy and holiness, resetting and re centering, humanity intertwined, and with our Torah portions reminding us to gather, meet and draw near we must ask the question-what do we draw near to now? How do we gather? 

And I believe, that Or Ami, as always, quickly jumped into shifting modalities for how we can accomplish this meeting one another.

Just in the past week we’ve meditated, done a lchaim, studied, prayed, sang, mourned, laughed, dreamed, cried and listened to each other over the phone, zoom Facebook live, livestream, videos, emails, text messages, written notes. There is a healing power in this kind of connection. We cannot let social distancing become spiritual distancing. In fact, we wont. 

Take this Shabbat to reach out to someone and gather with them. Connect over the phone or Facetime. Check in on a loved one. Find a friend to say hello to. “Meet” with a family member. “Draw near” to those who make you smile. Then we are truly fulfilling what God is asking of us. Meet, gather, draw near. Amen.