[Sermon] Shabbat in the Coronavirus Crisis

23 March 2020 – 27 Adar 5780

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
21 March 2020

Shabbat Shalom. The physical congregation that usually inhabits the synagogue is absent and the hum of people gathering to celebrate Shabbat has been replaced by silence.

And yet, hinneinu, here we are, sharing this sacred moment across the ether.

Before we begin our service, let us pause to acknowledge what it means to say hinneinu, here we are. Here we are, like Moses at the burning bush1, present in this moment – and also ready to respond to the call of the present, the present reality that confronts us, and step out into the unknown future that lies before us.

Here we are in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. We don’t know when it will end. All we know is that we have been forced to withdraw from the public space and our daily routines out in the world – for the sake of ourselves and others. We feel anxious and fearful for ourselves, for our loved ones, for our community and all the communities we inhabit, for our society and our world. The threats to our health, including our mental health, our social fabric and our economic welfare loom large.

It feels like we are now inhabiting a ‘brave new world’ that we barely recognise – and many of us are not feeling very brave.

Those with long memories that go back to the Second World War, will recall another time of crisis, when daily life was disrupted and many nights were spent taking shelter from bombing raids. Those who experienced the Sho’ah at first hand will recall the loss of loved ones and what it took to endure and survive the horror – or to take flight never to return and leave families and friends behind.

Let us take courage from those who lived through that terrible time. As ‘social distancing’ becomes the norm for a while, a long while, and many find themselves confined to their homes, let us bridge the space between us with acts of compassion and care for those around us. Over the past few years, we have become aware of the terrible abuses perpetrated in the world of social media. Now we have the opportunity to use social media creatively and constructively to forge connections with one another, to experience Shabbat together, although we are apart, to study and to meet ‘virtually’. And for those who do not have access to social media, there is the phone and the letterbox. We can speak to one another. We can reach out to one another. We can shop for those in need and, albeit with gloved hands and sanitisers at the ready, share and exchange our food, household goods, and resources with those who are less fortunate than ourselves.

Meanwhile, as the frenetic social space shuts down and factories close and planes are grounded, we can see that as spring arrives, the natural space is coming alive. The skies are clearing, the air is becoming breathable again – and the earth is getting a chance to restore itself. Today is Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, ‘the Sabbath of the Month’ – that is, the month of Nisan, the first month of the Jewish year, referred to in the Torah as Aviv, ‘Spring’2. And in the midst of the month: Pesach, the festival that celebrates the Exodus of our ancestors from slavery. It is hard to be hopeful in such uncertain times, but the arrival of spring urges us to hope and Pesach reminds us never to lose hope – and this unique day set apart from the working days of the week that recalls the Exodus3, is an oasis of hope. For millennia, Shabbat has been a weekly opportunity for rest, refreshment and renewal. The Book of Exodus speaks in two places of Shabbat as a time, not only for ceasing – which what the word Shabbat means – but for re-being, recharging, refreshing our being, our nefesh.4 As the coronavirus pandemic marches on, may the experience of Shabbat reassure us that just as the natural world is recovering and surging into new life, we, too, will recover and renew our lives. And let us say: Amen.

So, let us now celebrate Shabbat together and nourish our souls for the week ahead.
1 Sh’mot, Exodus 3:4.
2 Bo, Ex. 12:2 and 13:4
3 See the Deuteronomy version of the Shabbat commandment: Va-etchannan, Deut. 5:15: “You shall remember that you were slave in the land of Egypt, and the Eternal your God brought you out from their with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Eternal your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
4 The Hebrew root is Nun Pei Shin, from which the word, nefesh is derived. Mishpatim, Ex. 23:12, concerning the stranger: ‘Six days use should do your work, but on the seventh you shall cease; so that your ox and your ass may rest, and the son of your handmade, and the stranger, may be re-beinged – v’yinnafeish.Ki Tissa Ex. 31:17, concerning the Eternal One: “It [Shabbat] is a sign between me and the Israelites forever; for in six days the Eternal One made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day, ceased from work and was re-beinged” – Va-yinnafash.

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