Friday, March 20, 2020

The Coronavirus Tabernacle

        Two weeks ago, while absorbing Chile’s summertime sunshine, I came across a friend’s Instagram post. Smelling fresh flowers, he mentioned this Hebrew month's motto, “When Adar comes, joy increases.” Now, on the 24th of Adar, I sit in my living room in Massachusetts uncertain and unamused. During the day, Torah represents my sole company. However, this week's portion and the entirety of Exodus, which we conclude this Shabbat, offer immense insight for the coronavirus crisis. The Israelites create something of nothing, transitioning from an enslaved people into a holy community. In doing so, they establish a roadmap to make the most of apparent desolation.

         For the next several weeks, our rapid and constant consumption and growth needs to come to a standstill. We do not know what to make of this unfamiliar moment, but Exodus also represents a crisis of identity. At the Sea of Reeds, we stare back at what we always knew with little idea of what came next. Miriam elects to circumvent her worries, leaning into song and dance. Soon enough, this jubilee tampers into anxiety and confusion, and the Israelites construct an idol in doubt of God’s benevolence and strength. It appears that at Sinai, the Israelites cede their delight and faith for suspicion and fear.

       Nonetheless, through their mistakes, the Israelites internalize that God offers a covenant and guidance. They also discover that the fulfillment of this promise – beauty and happiness – comes from life’s inhabitants playing an active role. God never lowers the ceiling to the heavens. Rather, the Israelites learn to reach toward them. In this week’s culminating portion, they collaborate in the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. The resources for this project come not from God but “among you.” The Israelites bring their finest treasures – 29 talents of gold, 100 talents of silver, copper, linens, oils, stones, and acacia wood. They choose to advance God’s creation, combining their resources to make something exquisite.

       Midrash says that every Jew’s guardian angel stood present at Sinai (Shabbat 146a), so according to our mystic tradition, all of us retained the lessons there. When Adar started, many expected the changing of seasons, the holiday of Purim, new romance, or whatever it may have been to facilitate an increase in pleasure. Suddenly, our expectations encountered cancellations, mandatory isolation, fear, and doubt. In contrast, even now our families, friendships, technology and diverse cultures remain. We hold onto the tools to make something of nothing. At Sinai, each person God endowed with skill excelled in ability to complete their task. As we remain in this month of glee, each of us ought to adopt a similar approach. With wit, intellect, creative talent, and empathy, we will cultivate joy, reenacting our triumph of liberation. The future will look different than the society from which we came, but we may take the gifts among us to construct a space for something beautiful, something holy. We are now the builders of the Coronavirus Tabernacle.

       Of note, the Israelites construct their Tabernacle and accept God’s promise only after colossally muddling their first weeks of redemption. Egoism and desire for short-term satisfaction push them to ignore the prospect of ongoing prosperity for all. In response, God demands that they wander in the wilderness, reckoning their individual and collective responsibilities. Once again, we find ourselves caught between needs of the self and the common welfare. No one makes it out of this crisis unless we bind our fates together, ironically through isolation, yet this moment exposes the widespread insecurity around access to housing, food, and high quality healthcare of our time. In the desert, the Israelites’ children emerge ready to inhabit a new land together, accepting a framework of common decency. Devoid of our usual motivators and distractions, we possess the time and space to revisit our principles. Before returning to a more fulfilling place, we may ask “During the time of the virus and henceforth, who deserves to live in good health, safety, and dignity?”

         The events of Exodus transform the Israelites from rebels who escaped an ancient superpower into a people ready to work together toward holiness. They create beauty in a barren landscape, and overtime, they form a society based on ethics. This moment seems bleak, but it represents an opportunity to look beyond short-sighted, self-benefiting impulses. Remembering what it was like at Sinai, we confront a physical and emotional wilderness. In this moment, we opt into joy and justice. For such an occasion, I can only say what we proclaim when concluding any book of Torah, “Chazak, chazak, v'nitchazeik!” (Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened!”)