Parshot Festivals

Gathering physically isn’t essential, preserving life is

  • RabbiSchell
Like the United States president, President Cyril Ramaphosa has declared that places of worship are “essential places that provide essential services”, and must therefore reopen.
by Rabbi Adrian M Schell, Congregation Bet David Morningside, Sandton | Jun 04, 2020

On one count, I agree. Churches, synagogues, and mosques do provide essential services to our communities. We provide meaningful ways for people of faith to gather in joy and sorrow, to learn and pray, to express our beliefs, and celebrate our traditions. We work to feed the hungry and protect the vulnerable, and we encourage our members to bring our Jewish values to bear in the world to create a more just and compassionate society. In these frightening and uncertain times, our mission to be a caring community has never been clearer.

But on another count, our congregations never closed during this pandemic. While our buildings have been closed, we have continued to learn and pray via Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, and “virtual classrooms”, and many of us have been busier than usual.

Progressive communities have created meaningful online services on Shabbat and festivals, and attendance at these “virtual” services, adult and religious school classes, and shiurim is consistently high. Perhaps it’s because it’s easy to attend services when you don’t even need to leave your house. But it’s also because we realise how essential it is to connect meaningfully to community during this time of social distancing and isolation.

It’s true that we dearly miss being in our beautiful buildings. We miss holding our sacred Torah scrolls in our arms, and hearing the words of prayers by fellow members and our rabbis. We miss hugging and greeting one another in the building. However, we all know that the most important mitzvah we can observe during this pandemic is that of piku’ach nefesh – saving a life. While many communities are implementing procedures to resume services in our sanctuaries during alert level 3, we will do so very carefully.

For no matter how beautiful and precious our shuls are to us, our physical space isn’t “essential”. What is essential is life. Our congregations are our people, not our buildings, and each person is unique and irreplaceable, created in the image of G-d. When we can safely hold in-person services, we know that we will cherish each other’s presence more than ever.

These days, we are mourning nearly 400 000 people worldwide – including 700 plus fellow South Africans – lost to COVID-19. This is an enormous and unfathomable loss for their loved ones, for our country, and for humanity.

If we genuinely want to honour their lives along with the lives of all who are caring for the sick, we must do everything we can to preserve life. Going forward, our new “normal” must be an even greater sense of care for our most vulnerable, and a renewed commitment to gather responsibly in a manner that’s inclusive of everyone – young and old – in our communities.

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