It was this week 3 years ago when the way we live our lives pivoted so dramatically. The COVID lockdown started and we found ourselves at home. The Torah portion that week is this same as it is again this week, and it remains both ironic and so fittingly apt in what it has to teach us about the experience of the last three years.
The dual Torah portion is called Vaykhel-Pikudei, named for Moses’ assembling -congregating – all the people together. The first thing he announces after they assemble as a community is that on the 7th day Sabbath everyone needs to take a day off from work and stay at home…if for no other reason than to save lives.
Three years on, we can easily recall the mindset of very consciously avoiding any assembly, keeping distance from one another in order to save our lives and others’ lives in our community. We experienced a kind of extended and universal Bible-literal Sabbath with almost everyone around the world staying home.
Many of us still have that ‘avoid-the-crowds’ mindset to some degree, whether intentionally or unintentionally.
But think back to how quickly many of us found ways to congregate online through Zoom, to connect with the old-fashioned phone call, or – shockingly! – actual pen-and-paper letters! Hopefully we discovered and still feel the strength and breadth of our family and community extending so much further than we might have imagined or fully appreciated before the pandemic: Bonds of care and love we had overlooked or taken for granted before served to connect us across the distance and time, uniting us through experience and concern.
What did we learn from this unexpected era of our lives these last years? Can this Torah portion with which the lockdown began (and now, marking this week three years on) point to some positive things we learned from this experience? Does this portion signify any wisdom that we want to keep with us as we move ineluctably forward with our lives?
Commentators suggest that when the Torah literally reads “whoever does any work on the Sabbath shall be put to death” (Exodus 35:2), the actual meaning is more broadly applicable and far less harsh: By ignoring the opportunity to experience the Sabbath one risks forfeiting one’s own soul…
We had a unique opportunity to save other people’s lives, literally, by keeping our distance during the pandemic. This immeasurably good “good deed” also offered us a unique opportunity to embrace our own isolated souls in our time at home, to reconnect to ourselves and others, to re-establish a healthier and more fulfilling life routine, to literally and figuratively smell the flowers…
What positive aspects of the pandemic lockdown did you embrace? What about the situation do you now view as an opportunity – both an opportunity you seized and failed to take full advantage of? What good intentions did you formulate at the pandemic’s start that you seek to maintain even now?
In our Torah portion, when we were assembled as a community by Moses, we are moved to generosity and give more than is needed to build the Tabernacle in the dessert so that God can dwell among us. How have you become more generous, forgiving, or understanding through the experience of these last years?
We are introduced to Bezalel in this portion, the paradigm of an artisan. What new talents and creative energies did you discover in yourself and others through the extended ‘Sabbath’ that was the pandemic lockdown? What inspired music, reading, art, classes, movies or other experiences are a treasure you discovered during this time?
Finally, our portion this week concludes the book of Exodus, the book that tells the story of our release from Egypt and the birth of our freedom. The rest of the Torah, and even already in this week’s portion and previously, we learn what to do with that freedom. We learn the responsibilities we have to utilize our freedom to advance the world and help fulfill God’s intentions for bringing holiness and wholeness to the world.
Now that most of us are free again to go about our business in any way we choose: What responsibilities will you take on? How will you heal the world and bring some holiness to it? What tasks might God have in store for you that you ‘prepared for’ while sequestered?
Rabbi Michael Schwartz