A Jewish Values Matrix for Dealing with a Time of Illness

April 3, 2020Rabbi Joseph R. Black

In the last few weeks, my congregational community, like others around the world, has spent a great deal of time and energy formulating a plan to deal with the myriad of possible situations and decisions associated with the advent of COVID-19.

As we struggle to consider all our options in this ever-changing environment, we strive to make decisions using a values-based matrix that will help us to act in a consistent manner that is in line with Jewish tradition and modern sensibility.

1. Pikuach Nefesh / Saving a Life

This is the most important Jewish value. Our sacred texts teach that we can forgo almost any commandment or prohibition in order to preserve life.  

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, our top priority must be the health and safety of all. Closing our building and canceling or radically reshaping our services, programs, and classes is done with the goal of ensuring everyone’s safety.

2. Al Tifrosh Min Ha Tzibbur / “Do Not Separate Oneself from the Community” (Mishnah, Avot 2:5)

Physically distancing – by cancelling programs, services, and educational and social events – can easily have the effect of isolating many of us from one another.

As such, we leveraging as many ways as possible to ensure that that we stay in touch.

We strive to remain connected to our community through livestreaming, emails, and communications via our website and Facebook – and we’re also dealing with the fact that some of this technology is imperfect. There’s a learning curve, but we are determined to do everything we can to enable and sustain meaningful connections.

3. Lo Ta’aShok Sachir / “Treat Workers Fairly” (Deut. 24:14)

Cancelling programs or classes has a ripple effect, not only on program participants but also on those who are contracted to conduct them.

Our synagogue is a large institution that employs many teachers, custodians, caterers, musicians, and clerical staff who depend on us for their livelihood. We are committed to doing all we can to ensure that programmatic interruptions have minimal impacts on our employees’ abilities to care for themselves and their loved ones.

We are also trying to be conscious of the impact that cancellation have on those who are counting on getting paid for their services. Whenever possible, we are thinking of ways to help our partners in the community.

4. Simcha / Rejoicing

Even (and perhaps especially) in times of difficulty, it’s important that we look for ways to celebrate Jewish life. This can be difficult when lifecycle events are canceled or postponed due to health concerns, but we are determined to do all that we can, within the constraints of the reality of our situation, to help achieve these moments of joy

5. Nechama / Comforting the Afflicted

Pastoral care is central to our congregation’s mission – and when personal contact is limited, this can be especially difficult. We continue to strive to be present for all who are in need in any way that we can.

6. Tzimtzum / Narrowing Down or Contracting

In Jewish mystical tradition, prior to creation, God went through a process of contraction and self-examination in order to make room for the world. Because God was everywhere and everything, there was no space for anything else – hence the need to pull away.

Similarly, there are times when we need to contract our emotional, physical, and spiritual needs in order to make room for others. In particular, we need to be sensitive to those in our community who may be most affected by the virus – the most vulnerable among us.

We’ve seen multiple responses to this situation, some bringing out the worst in people: Hoarding supplies, looking for others to blame, scapegoating and spreading unfounded rumors are unhelpful and destructive.

On the other hand, we’ve also seen people coming together, looking for ways to help, and self-sacrificing in order to ensure that the most affected are protected – perfect examples of how we can make room for others in our midst.

7. Dugma Ishit / Role-Modeling

The lay and professional leadership of our community must lead by example. As such, we are making every effort to demonstrate healthy behavior and choices.

We are not gathering in groups or at the synagogue. We are leading services, congregational events, and functions from separate locations through the use of technology until it is determined safe to come together again. And no member of our leadership will ever put pressure on anyone else to engage in actions that could possibly place them in harm’s way. 

In this uncharted territory, the uncertainty and unease we all feel is normal for a situation that is anything but normal. May we work together as a kehillah kedosha, a sacred community, to emerge strengthened and resolute – and may our values serve as anchors in a sea of uncertainty.

For more congregational resources related to dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, visit URJ.org/COVIDResources.

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