And yet like many people throughout the world, I spent a good deal of my time at the conference reading about, and discussing, the coronavirus. I realized then and there that despite my attachments to specific peoples, namely Americans, Jews and Israelis, and specific borders, those of the United States and Israel, the lines that demarcate those attachments quickly became irrelevant. It was as if all our discussions, and debates, the cheering and at times even weeping (there were some incredibly moving moments at the conference), were rendered moot by a line no larger than one-900th the width of a human hair.
That is the size of the virus that dominates our attention, and hypnotizes our concern.
As much as we might wish to draw lines, and seal off borders, against threats, we have come to realize that the world is far more interconnected than we ever thought possible. Then again perhaps the world was always so connected. It is not like epidemics did not spread throughout the world prior to plane travel and prior to our dependence on China’s manufacturers.
There I was at the AIPAC Policy Conference cheering about the special bond between Israel and America, and reflecting on my decades-long affection for the city of Jerusalem, and I awoke to the realization that we are indeed one human family. We might not always think this is the case, but this nearly invisible virus has made this crystal clear. Just as there is a definitive, bright line between Israel and Syria, there is, we now belatedly realize, a hairbreadth line connecting Wuhan to New York City.
I may not wish this to be so, but it is. We are one. The world can only fight this virus together. It seems so cliché to say such things, but that is the lesson swirling amidst the news about this virus. Borders are not impervious to dangers and threats. And we should no longer require an electron microscope to be made aware of this. And so what are we to do?
Should we take counsel with the Torah’s somewhat strange ritual of consulting the Urim and Thummim (Exodus 28). These were, by the way, ancient means of determining God’s will when matters appeared beyond people’s ability to control. Think of a Ouija Board. Or if you have traveled to Asia, think of how a person throws stones to get a prescription and how in those lands religion and medicine are intertwined.
How I have been tempted (almost) these past few weeks!
That is not of course what I am going to do. And that is not what I think we should do. Believing in science and medicine is not the opposite of faith. It can inform what I believe and how I pray.
We should (we must!) follow the advice of experts, of doctors and health officials, of the New York Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. I hope it goes without saying that this is what we are doing at the synagogue. We are insisting on healthy practices for every member of our congregation. By all means, if you are sick, stay home and get healthy, and also be in touch with me so your synagogue community can be supportive. By all means, stay vigilant about your health. Practice good hygiene. Be safe. Be prudent.
Still I worry. Not just about the virus.
I worry about what makes us human. The potential threat is also a needed prescription. It is always and will forever be excellent medicine. We need other people. We require affection. We are sustained by compassion. Can this, if this is what one day will be required of us, be conveyed at a prescribed distance of six feet? I for one have resolved that for now, those who wish to be hugged, will be hugged. And those who wish instead for an elbow bump will receive a (loving?) elbow.
Remember what makes us what we are, and makes every person, throughout this big, and every shrinking, world human. It is first and foremost other people.
The lines can longer be drawn, and perhaps no longer should be drawn.