It’s hard to live in uncertain times. Almost everyone I speak with is worried about how to keep their loved ones and themselves as safe as possible and how to support others. None of us has perfect answers. I’m reminded of Keats’s concept of ‘negative capability’, the capacity to live amidst uncertainties and doubts.
Even Moses, whom the Torah describes as having a hotline to God, wants certainty. Four times in just two verses (which we read in the Torah tomorrow) he uses the word ‘know’. ‘Make known to me your ways,’ he begs God. Tell me what to do; be clear. The Talmud explains that he wants to understand why bad things happen. As so often, the question is more powerful than any putative answer.
But not everything in this new ‘coronavirus reality’ is uncertain.
On a practical level, there are strong guidelines from Public Health England. The synagogue leadership is taking expert advice every day; we ask everyone to act on it. Please see our website for updates. The Torah insists ‘venishmartem me’od lenafshoteichem: you must take great care of your lives.’ Our health and the health of those around us takes priority over virtually everything. Rabbis are not in the habit of asking people not to come to shul. But in this situation, we are telling anyone who is vulnerable or a potential risk to others please not to attend.
Another certainty is that we can and shall support each other. ‘Ish lerei’eihu – each for their neighbour,’ we just read in the Megillah. We need to be there for one another, if not physically, then by phone, facetime or online. It matters deeply to us in the synagogue to know who may be isolated, alone. Tell us, so that we can be in contact, not once but regularly over these difficult weeks. We need to think ‘community’ in its best sense, not just for members of our synagogue, but including those near us, dear to us, and for whom we have, or should have, concern in our hearts.
We are also mindful of the economic impact on many people and are considering what (modest) support we can offer.
None of us has entirely waterproof morale. There are already a number of people in self-isolation. There will be more. We may all face similar measures to those taken in Italy. We will therefore send a daily message, with links to good online programmes.
On a more homely basis, we will be holding a short daily dial-in Maariv service every evening at 8.00pm which will always include some English, some personal words and the opportunity to say Kaddish.
We are planning our own ‘broadcasts’ (could Kol NNLS be a good name?) As well as traditional Torah learning, we intend to include 10 -15 minute slots by members on such subjects as: a favourite Jewish story; a recipe with simple ingredients; favourite poems; and ‘what you can see out of your window’ about birds, plants, even clouds and insects which we might scarcely have noticed before. It’ll be good to hear many familiar voices from our community on these close to home topics.
We plan to trial these programmes at the end of next week and will send out details of how to download or access simple technologies which will enable as many people as possible to participate.
I’d be lying if I did not acknowledge that I’m worried about how I myself might manage two weeks or more in isolation, despite all the technical aids available. I’m full of admiration for the people I know about who are coping well.
I hope I could make this a time of Teshuvah, not in the sense of repentance for sins, but in the deeper meaning of ‘return’. Return, that is, to what most matters: to valuing others, especially those I take for granted; to appreciating life’s simple gifts so that I mean ‘Baruch’ when I say the blessing over good bread; to being in touch with the soul, which even in someone as unmusical as me, knows how to sing with life before God.