I wish you health and strength of spirit. I speak for of us all in expressing my utter gratitude to everyone from ambulance teams, nurses and doctors to shop and delivery personnel who are working selflessly and unstintingly through cruel and weary hours to keep us safe. Thank you!
In novel times, old words have new meanings, strike the heart in different ways. In the Bible, a Korban Tzibbur is the sacrifice bought from communal funds and offered on behalf of the entire community. Sheep, oxen, flour, wine, oil: we read all about it in the Torah this week.
But that’s not what the words mean to me now. Next to me are pictures of two doctors who died from Covid 19 as they carried out their duties. One of them, Dr Ala Saadu, voluntarily returned from retirement to help. There are sacrifices in our communities. I’m speaking with people who’ve lost someone they’ve loved all their lives – ‘Our family can’t even hug each other as we grieve’. When the grip of this virus wanes, every community, every tzibbur, will have its korban and there will be sorrow as well as relief in the hearts of all who survive.
But even this, frightening and humbling, is not the most powerful, magnetic meaning the words korban tzibbur hold for me now. They speak to me first and foremost of everyone who mekarev, brings themselves forward, and makriv atsmo, offers their service on behalf of the community. We witness such korban tzibbur, such public service, everywhere: it’s like that here, in Israel, Italy, Spain, in every country across the world silenced by the coronavirus.
Except that we are not silenced. We hear an appeal for drivers to help with deliveries by a woman who’s turned over her commercial kitchens to supplying meals to workers for the National Health Service. Here we learn of people collecting food in every neighbourhood, for foodbanks, for refugees, for people who’ve become almost invisible on our streets but not forgotten from the hearts of these volunteers. Here are teenagers, students, on bike, on foot, collecting prescriptions, delivering medicines, leaving shopping on doorsteps. Here are people, vulnerable themselves, with a list of others to call: ‘Are you OK? What do you need?’
Around us, travelling to work in those almost empty busses, are hundreds of thousands of medical and frontline staff, working double-shifts, exhausted, determined.
That’s what Korban Tzibbur, sacrifice on behalf of the community, is these days.
The Torah calls such offerings olah, a ‘going up’. Those who make them not only raise themselves up to being the best people they possibly can, but lift up the hopes and hearts of us all with the spirit of a different society and a better humanity, devoted, dedicated, appreciative, aware of how deeply we need each other.
The Torah tells us that these sacrifices lasted kol halaylah, ‘all night until morning’. It’s not only that they sustain us and keep us strong through the slow and lonely hours of darkness. It’s more than that, Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl explains: they themselves are the morning, they turn our darkness into light.
The Torah explains that kol hayiga bahem yikdash ‘whoever touches them becomes holy;’ that is, whoever gives, helps, supports and connects themselves in any way with such generosity and service becomes holy. Something sacred touches their lives, and ours through them, transforming us, our values and our perspective. We come close to God; we become participants in that tenderness, respect and loving kindness which alone has the power to draw all life together.
Shabbat Shalom and Refuah Shelemah – a Shabbat of peace and healing