Rabbis give spiritual guidance in handling the coronavirus crisis
March 20, 2020
(JTA)—At this point, we know well how to wash our hands to protect ourselves from the coronavirus. But how do we soothe our souls?
When we recently asked for stories about how local Jewish communities are adapting to the public health threat, we received plenty of examples of changes that are underway, from “Spock” greetings instead of handshakes to chopsticks as Torah pointers.
We also got a request for spiritual guidance. So we reached out to several rabbis around the world and asked them to offer their advice. We’ll update this page with additional responses as they come in—and if you’re a Jewish spiritual leader with words of your own to add, you can email us.
Keep up with the latest on the coronavirus in the Jewish world by following our updates here.
A 6-part spiritual prescription
At this moment, we want to protect ourselves and our families; this is human nature. From a Jewish perspective, from a social justice perspective, from a human perspective, we can’t descend into pointed tribalism at a time when we need to come together as a collective of mind and soul. The coronavirus is a huge burden placed on humanity, but one that can be handled through shared action, compassion and a desire to see this disease contained before more lives are needlessly lost.
—Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Safety is sacrosanct. Health is foremost.
The news today can be especially spiritually unsettling and alarming in nature. When our community in New York has been struck with a plague that prevents so many of us from gathering in physical contact, how ought we react?
Upholding the cautionary measures decreed by health officials and authorities must be seen then as fulfilling the highest religious commandment: pikuach nefesh, saving human life. If you have symptoms of illness, including fever, coughing, stomach bug or any other sickness, it is a mitzvah to stay in quarantine.
It was Yom Kippur 1846—the cholera epidemic was at its height—when Rabbi Yisrael Salanter allegedly rose to the pulpit, washed his hands publicly and made a blessing as he ate bread on our calendar’s most sacred day. The Jewish community feared trespassing communal and religious norms then, but Rabbi Salanter reminded the Jewish community: In light of life-threatening illness, eating food on Yom Kippur wasn’t breaking the Torah law, it was upholding it.
When confronted with life or death, Jews must always emphatically choose life. This has been the Jewish way since the beginning of time.
Furthermore, now, as in times past, will be a period where we will see the most important innovating responses.
We witnessed this just last week when SAR Academy offered online classes for hundreds of students, studying Hebrew, welcoming Shabbat and maintaining semblances of normalcy.
We witnessed this in wartime when Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile rockets rained on Israel, Jews celebrated Purim in bunkers.
When the AIDS epidemic ravished the gay community, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah still gathered with Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum leading into uncharted territory.
When Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav wrote, “There is no despair in the world,” we ought to reflect: What is he talking about? Rebbe Nachman, a depressive, mourned the death of his own son and lived in a time of great political turmoil for the Jewish people. Was Rebbe Nachman unfamiliar with despair or delusional?
Certainly not. He was offering us a life approach and philosophy. “The whole world is a narrow bridge; the main principle—do not fear.”
Safety is sacrosanct. Health is foremost.
And remember the mantra, the trope that has accompanied our people since Passover days: Nevertheless, Jews persisted.
—Rabbi Avram Mlotek, co-founder of Base Hillel, director of spiritual life for its international program and rabbi of its Manhattan site
The spiritual potential of quarantine
When I landed in Israel and found out that because I attended the AIPAC Policy Conference I’d have to be quarantined, I was surprised to learn the Hebrew word for quarantine was “bidud.” The word immediately triggered my obsession with the sad Megillat Eichah (Lamentations) that we read on the Ninth of Av.
For an unknown reason, whenever I’m chazzan and I have to choose a tune, my brain automatically chooses the morbid dirge of Eichah. This can lead to a comical or embarrassing scene. The first words of Eichah, “Lonely sits the city once great with people! She that was great among nations has become like a widow,” speak to the loneliness of destroyed Jerusalem. The word “lonely” in Hebrew is “badad,” the same word used for quarantine in modern Hebrew.
Being alone in quarantine, devoid of friends, family, co-workers and community, a person is truly lonely. Talking on the phone, messaging and even video chatting is no substitute for being in the physical presence of others. There is no replacement for the hug, kiss or even the handshake. Just having others around gives a person a sense of security and comfort. Quarantine forces a painful loneliness. For the Jew who loves the mitzvot and rituals of their religion, especially the communal ones, the loneliness is compounded.
Yet the loneliness of companionship can also create an opportunity. The loneliness of others creates the solitude of the person with God. All alone, a person is able to commune with God as never before. God is eternally listening to our voices, and God awaits our prayers. The silence of bidud provides a person the opportunity to connect to God on the deepest of levels. Without the pressures of work, a schedule or family chores, a person can turn to God, pour their heart out and deepen their relationship with the Creator. The gaping hole of spirituality left by the absence of ritual can be filled with a more unique connection to God.
Our rabbis tell us that if we are homebound we can still pray with the community by praying at the same time as the community. The internet allows us to listen to shiurim (Torah classes) with others, and many of us even listened to live streams of Megillah.
Quarantine is a challenge previously unthought of by our Sages. It is lonely and depressing. Those feelings are natural and valid. All of us in quarantine are feeling them. But taken in the right way, it can provide time and opportunity to connect with God, rethink values and recommit to the priorities that are important to us.
—Rabbi Uri Pilichowski
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of JTA or its parent company, 70 Faces Media.