A medical staffer watches from a tent at one of the emergency structures that were set up to ease procedures at the Brescia hospital, northern Italy, Thursday, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
As a Rabbi in California, I am surrounded by houses of worship closing their doors in fear of COVID-19, but our synagogue is continuing to have services, classes, and our scheduled programming. I have received a number of calls or emails suggesting that we should close our doors and do everything online as a result of the fears around COVID-19, and asking why I am so committed to our not succumbing to the fears surrounding this pandemic (some of which are very legitimate). There are important things that I believe every religious community and spiritual leaders of all faiths need to consider to help each of us deal with the fears that are starting to take hold of society as a result of this sickness.
There is an important story in the Talmud (Berachot 61b), one of the sacred texts of Judaism Once, the wicked government [of Rome] decreed that the Jewish people were forbidden to study Torah. Pappus ben Judah saw Rabbi Akiva convening gatherings in public and studying Torah.
Said Pappus to him: "Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?"
Said Rabbi Akiva to him: "I'll give you a parable."
A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: "What are you fleeing?"
Said they (the fish) to him: "The nets that the humans spread for us."
Said he (the fox) to them: "Why don't you come out onto the dry land? We'll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors."
Said they to him: "Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You're not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!"
The same applies to us. If now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said (Deuteronomy 30:20), "For it is your life and the lengthening of your days,' such is our situation, how much more so if we neglect it..."
When we gather together in prayer, study, or service we nurture our true life's blood and create a shield of spiritual well-being that protects our bodies as well. We must always remember that we are not human beings who occasionally have spiritual experiences, but rather that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. We cannot let our fears around COVID-19 make us let go of our spiritual shields. Instead, like the fish, we must go back to the basics: we must embrace our "water of life" — our religion, teachings, and community. In this way, we add additional protection (besides washing our hands, etc.) to our experience of life.
It is a fundamental truth that fear and faith cannot exist simultaneously in the same place and time; the more faith we have about anything, the less fear, and vice versa. If we are honest, this pandemic is much less of a long-term concern than the economic and political challenges that are starting to arise because of the fear (again — does anyone really need 200 rolls of toilet paper?). That fear is exponentially increased every time we go to Costco and see people running through the aisles. But we need to be people of faith. We need to be active members of a spiritual community. We have the sacred texts and all of our religious teachings to help us survive any crisis.
Jewish ancestors dealt with horrible, and truly scary, situations before us: the destruction of the Temple, the Black Plague, the expulsion from Spain, the Nazis, and more. Catholics and Christians have been persecuted and attacked in multiple ways for two thousand years across the globe. By staying true to the basics of gathering together as spiritual communities in prayer, study, and good deeds we have survived all of these challenges. And we will survive COVID-19 and the accompanying paranoia as well.
Consider a God-forbid hypothesis: If the government, God forbid, acted like the ancient Romans and forbade religious services, I contend that we would have more people come together for services than we typically have at any other Sabbath service. If the Eucharist were forbidden by the government, I suspect more lapsed Catholics would come to the Mass as a statement of commitment of renewed faith. Like our ancestors, we would not allow ourselves to succumb to the fear and would choose instead to be even more active in our religious communities — and would both gather strength together as well as strengthen our spiritual shields. We would not allow an outside influence to determine our practices but would come together — and this flu is just another challenging outside influence that we need to overcome in the way people of faith have always overcome challenges: by supporting each other in all ways physical and spiritual.
I am not suggesting that anyone be foolish. If someone's health is at risk because of age, previous health conditions, or because people are sick in their homes, they should be wise and considerate enough of others to stay home and pray or study online. When we come to services, classes, or any religious event, we shouldn't hug or kiss each other but give an elbow bump instead. But we need to choose to also stay true and connected to our faith traditions. Only in this way will we be able to survive and even thrive together.
We should all wash our hands, and in our synagogue, we are providing Purell and anti-septic wipes to everyone. But we must also make sure to not surrender to the downward spiral of fear and choose instead to act with faith. We need to be aware and conscious and also retain our souls and spiritual well-being. There is a Sufi teaching: "Trust in God and tether your camel." Act in faith, and simultaneously act with awareness.
Like the fish in the Talmud, we need to survive not by leaving what is our inherent strength and environment, but by embracing what makes us strong. Our spirituality is our life and the length of our days. Gathering together as people of faith creates an exponentially stronger shield against any crisis. We have always been stronger as religious communities than alone, and we always will be. We must always rely on our true strengths: our faith, our teachings, and our spiritual communities.
In this time of growing fear, I hope that houses of worship will continue to supply the much needed spiritual strength that people need. May we all be blessed to strengthen each other's souls and bodies through our ancient religious "survival techniques" that remind us of the power of God, prayer, learning together, and spiritual community.