This month is beginning: COVID lessons from Shabbat HaChodesh

Oh goodness. A million things I should be doing, including sleeping. Let’s be real — I haven’t been sleeping much. So I might as well remind myself of the brilliant Michael Fishbane insight I read this morning regarding Shabbat HaChodesh.

Special Shabbats to prepare for Passover

Before I quote Dr. Fishbane, a word about the Shabbat that just ended. It was the fourth of four special Shabbats (Shabbatot in Hebrew) that move us toward Passover. Two things make these days special: they have a unique, out-of-order Maftir portion. So that means the last thing traditionally read from the Torah on Saturday morning is related to the theme of the Shabbat. If we were all in synagogue for this, that would mean taking out two Torah scrolls from the ark — one for the regular weekly portion, one for this special ending portion. Then there’s also a special section of the Prophets: the Haftorah, related to the theme of the day. So this last special Shabbat is announcing THE MONTH. Because there are multiple first months in the Jewish yearly cycle; but the one coming up is the first month of the year according to the Torah. Yes, that means that the New Year / Rosh HaShanah is in the seventh month of the year; whereas Passover is in the first month.

Month One is About to Begin!

The thing is, before we were a Temple-based religion, we Hebrews were agrarian. (Probably before that we were nomads, but our holidays start from the cultivation of land part of our history.) And of course, like all good stewards of the land, we recognized Spring as a time of renewal, rebirth, and beginnings. So Nisan is the first month. It starts next Thursday, by the way. As it says in Exodus 12:2, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months.”

Mystical vision, Practical implementation

The Ashkenazic Haftorah portion for last week (aka earlier today) is Ezekiel 45:16-46:18. It offers a vision for the future Temple, which is different from the vision of the Temple described in Exodus. Rather than getting bogged down in these details, let’s look at the conclusion of Dr. Fishbane’s brilliant commentary on this passage from Ezekiel and its place as part of Shabbat HaChodesh:

The daubing of the entrance to the home and Temple with blood marks them off as two types of space. The first embodies the family, whose bonds are biological and legal. The family is the nuclear core of personal history and religious rite and preserves a parochial character by virtue of intimacy and a common name. Alongside this dwelling stands the Temple, whose space is communal and whose rites have an official and public status. The Temple opens its doors for collective worship and thus transcends the private histories of its worshipers. How one may live in both homes—standing firm in loyalty to hearth and blood, but open to the larger commitments a divine dwelling symbolizes—is a question each reader must answer repeatedly.

Fishbane, The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot, p360.

This paragraph gut-punched me when I read it during my Zoom minyan this morning. In the context of 2020, the Temple in the above paragraph is a stand in for all of our obligations, responsibilities, identities, and communities beyond the walls of our homes. In a very short amount of time, my family was forced to collapse all that we do, and all that we are, into the space of our home. How are we living in both homes? Well, we must stay within the confines of the personal in order to protect the collective.

The Home and the Temple: Living Beyond Ourselves and Within Ourselves With Grace

And the question that I want to sink into as I prepare for the most unique Passover I’ll ever experience, is how to live in both homes simultaneously. How can I personally thrive while the world seems to be collapsing around me? How do I continue to make space for all the doors I was trying to open before my front door became the harbinger of potential death?

This I know for sure: I will not be the student I intended to be this semester. Since I have accepted primary parent responsibility for a four year-old and a six year-old without full-time weekday school / childcare, staying focused on my five graduate courses is difficult. Daf Yomi has fallen by the wayside. I’m a bit trepidatious that I might break my commitment to publicly counting the Omer. At the end of the day, none of that matters. If my family, both those within my home and those in other homes, makes it through this pandemic alive, that will be enough. If my neighbors are supported while so many of their jobs disappear, that will be enough. And if our essential workers — in healthcare, at grocery stores, at the postal service and other delivery personnel — survive and thrive, that will be enough.

Distinctions need to be made

Yet this magical, delicious Shabbat reminded me of the eternal truth of Shabbat, which is a refraction of the eternal truth of being alive: all of life is a balance of life and death. Judaism traditionally has laws about this. We bungle the translation and call them “purity” laws. What we’re really talking about are ancient ways to distinguish the living from the dead. As we continue our walk through this narrow place, this modern-day Mitzrayim, may we find the ways to allow ourselves to thrive despite the severe restrictions that surround us. If you are struggling to pay for your next meal or your next rent bill, you’re probably really angry reading my words. I deeply understand how lucky I am to be securely held by the love of my family in my home, in a community where I do not have to fear that my neighbors will spit on my Chinese Jewish kids. (Seriously, stop blaming Asians for this pandemic. It took an entire world to bungle the response to this.)

Choosing to Thrive

I am making a conscious choice to begin living differently in my second week of living with my entire family always under the same roof than I did my first week. I will be more conscientious of my time reading the news and interacting with social media.

I will not try to know how many new cases have been confirmed more than once a day. Since most of the country does not have enough supplies to perform tests; how much do the numbers really mean?

I will ground myself in the aspects of life that I have control over: my interactions with my family, my obligations to my communities, and my rabbinical studies.

I will make time for gratitude every day.

I will make time for prayer every day.

I will read a physical book every day.

I will tell my family I love them every day.

I will be present to the Present; to my physical body and the bodies around me.

And I will never give up hope. We are all deeply connected, beyond this mortal coil. May our bodies remain strong, our social distance complete, and may we be there for one another when we need help.