As the nation and the world move through so many unknowns in facing this pandemic, I appreciate the wisdom of Jewish tradition and guidance in helping us with coping.
The Torah opens with Creation, highlighted with the story of Adam and Eve, as a teaching that we all have common ancestry on this planet. Moreover, God’s “intent” is to connect with all people, not just one group. Furthermore, given that the world came (metaphorically) out of Adam and Eve, the lesson is that each person is as precious as an entire world.
From such appreciation comes the decisive moment on Mount Moriah (future home of the Temples in Jerusalem): Abraham did NOT sacrifice Isaac and thereby generated a message and teaching throughout the ages that life and wellbeing was to be treated as precious above all other values and commitments, including proper ritual behavior. Therefore, we are taught, if you face any risk from ill health, not only are you permitted to eat on Yom Kippur, you are obligated.
There is another infrastructural component of Judaism that is of benefit to us now, as we try, with so little information, to make decisions that can support health and minimal exposure to the Virus. Rabbinic Judaism, (i.e. the development of the Oral Law/Talmud that shaped Judaism as we know it, in contextualizing teachings and instruction in the Torah,) acknowledged and sanctioned two domains of Jewish function: The public/community domain and the domain of the individual, with each providing access to God in teachings, ritual practice, ceremony and celebration.
One, and possibly the most decisive, explanation for the continuity of the Jewish People and community, unbroken, even if at times clinging to life by a Divine thread, is the necessity to have a Minyan, 10 adult Jews (i.e. men, until recent times) to do certain prayers/Brachot, and, most critically, the Mourner’s Kaddish. Throughout the ages it was ingrained in us, no matter where the Galut/exile from the land of Israel took us, that we needed to have Jewish community for critical connectors to the Divine; i.e. the recitation of the Amidah/Standing prayer of partnership with HaShem, including the Kedusha.
Due to the obligation to have a minyan to say Kaddish, wherever we resided in the Diaspora, we made a point of assuring we had Jewish community, at least 10. That necessity is a prime factor in explaining how and why we are still around, while the nations of antiquity that sought to destroy us did not survive (except in some cases, i.e. Greece and Rome, in name only).
When Rabbinic Judaism, preparing us for life in the Diaspora, accentuated the two domains of function in connecting with each other and with God, it empowered us to function effectively individually. Normally, individual practice and observance complements communal activity associated with Shabbat, Holidays and a daily minyan in traditional circles. Shabbat observers enjoy, on their own, welcoming Shabbat with the blessing over candles, Kiddush, Motzi, a nice meal and Birkat Hamazon, after the meal. If they go to synagogue they enjoy community prayer and celebration of Shabbat. If unable to attend, they can do, on their own, most of the Shabbat service, including the Amidah (with a personal Kedusha) to accompany their home blessings around the meal.
The significance of so much we can do on our own is in reminding us that God dwells among us, and in all contexts, as opposed to any assumptions that God dwells primarily in a designated spot, i.e. a sanctuary in a synagogue or any identifiably holy place. Rather, God is in every aspect of Life, when we choose to notice. So, most of the service we conduct in a synagogue can be done at home or on one’s own. Shabbat attendees at CBI know that on occasions that we don’t have a minyan, we still have a rich experience together in sharing so much of a service permitted to the individual. While we need a minyan to take out the Torah, we do not need more than one person to study the Torah, and when we are short of a minyan, we take advantage of that with extended shared reflection on the meaning of the portion for that Shabbat.
It is the domain of the individual that is home to the family and friends that can enjoy holidays together. A Passover Seder does not require a Minyan. In fact the Seder is an apt example of the strength and character of the individual domain in that the community Seder, which it looks like we will have to forego this year, is a modern adaptation to bring to community something that originates in family units and is intended to be led in individual households. Modern times have seen the introduction of the community Seder to account for a lack of confidence and infrastructure for individuals and families to run their own. Growing up in Beth Sholom, San Francisco, where my father was rabbi for 48 years, the community Seder, unlike ours, was populated by a couple hundred people, many of whom knew no one else attending and were not connected to Jewish community. Their lack of personal connection to Jewish life necessitated providing access to them in the community for a Jewish experience that could at least allow them to continue to feel some sense of belonging.
As we move through the unknowns at this time, as to how to navigate through life with this pandemic upon us, at least we can take comfort in appreciating that Jewishly, if we need to hunker down for a period, so as to distance ourselves from one another, until we are told otherwise, we can still stay connected, both through technology and with the knowledge that so much of the ritual you may enjoy when we gather at CBI is accessible to you at home, as well.
Considering all the ways Judaism celebrates and values life, the underlying truth is that our people, who see human history as a series of generational teachings handed down since the Torah was given at Sinai, belong to a program geared to wrestling with God and life in all its challenges. We do so strengthened by a track record of surviving even the worst of times, yet always reemerging with new hope and unflagging optimism, bolstered by the Rabbinic teaching: Gam Ze Yaavor/This too shall pass.