Now In Dire Straits
Three times in this week’s Torah portion repeats the a Hebrew phrase is repeated: ki yamuch achicha – when your brother is in dire straits i.e. severe financial reversals is now poverty-stricken, the community is to create a safety net to help him weather this terrible reversal. The Torah teaches us that concern for the poor is a responsibility assumed not only by the community but also by individuals.
Dire straits is an apt description of the current condition of large segments of the workforce and population caused by the pandemic. The trillions of dollars Congress has voted to help ease the pain is consistent with the Torah’s mandate to create social networks to meet the basic needs of those in dire straits. From the vantage point of our tradition this is both a responsibility and a privilege.
Also included in this week’s Torah portion is chapter 26, the tochecha, a frightening forecast of plagues and reversals that would reduce and destroy even the most powerful and successful societies. The cause of these scourges is the failure to embrace and integrate the Torah’s moral imperatives in the society’s moral fabric.
Here too safety nets are essential. Societies that are sensitive to the needs of the common good reflect the presence of Divine Providence. It is also clear during this terrible pandemic that it is essential that safety measures nets be developed to help flatten the curve and create the herd immunity essential to our survival. Hence the prescription of the experts: social distancing, lock-downs, incessant hand washing and yes facial masks. These are the strands in the social network to provide a measure of protection until there is the vaccine that neutralizes this plague.
Inevitably there are push backs against these safety measures. Social distancing requirements separate families and friends from one another; our houses of worship are empty and our sports stadiums are vacant. Fortunately, the availability of Skype and Zoom make possible visual contact with loved ones and virtual participation in a simcha or in a shiva’s zoom room. While these lack the intimacy of the human touch, they are reasonable alternatives under our present circumstances.
Health experts insist that since the virus is airborne, social distancing and facial masks are essential to protect ourselves and others. The distancing is at times very difficult and the masks are uncomfortable and unattractive. While the vast majority accepts its role in embracing these needed networks, the violent protests of the small minority endanger all of us who share the public square. These rips in our safety network by an enraged minority are sadly endorsed and often encouraged by some leaders who are the models for this resistance that endangers us all.
Fortunately the majority has opted, as of this moment, to embrace and live by the demands of the social network that will hopefully help us remain healthy until the blessed day when the vaccine becomes a reality. In this pandemic we are all cast into dire straits, and it is only our willingness and capability to endure the discomfort of social distancing and masks that will enable us to witness the day we no longer will live with the fear of the virus.
From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing, and Chodesh Tov a month blessed with good tidings.
Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar