Reflections on life and death in time of a pandemic emerged in a precious gathering of seekers and sages, a weekly Torah class that has met with me for many years in a local coffee shop early every Thursday morning, now seeing each other’s faces as squares on the quilted screen. Yearning to hear our own Torah of the pandemic, I asked recently as prelude to the portion of Nitzavim (Deut. 29:9-30:20) and its exhortation to choose life: “What have we learned of life, of ourselves, of choices during this time of the pandemic…?”
Responses emerged un-muted, as commentary on each one’s page in the Book of Life: “There is so much that I used to do naturally that now requires conscious choice;” “With so much curtailed, the blessings in our lives are reinforced;” “The realities of this time are stripping away superficialities, revealing my basic core, my essence, making it easier to connect with my inner self;” “Walking by the same places as before fills me with appreciation for what was and for what will be;” “I have found a well of patience and resourcefulness, doing things that help me feel more tolerant of others;” “Negotiating the feelings and needs of others, as in the wearing of a mask, makes me question my own assumptions regarding risk, and, so too, regarding diversity of opinion;” “I have realized that I was blaming on life what I was not getting to, coming to know the importance of just doing things and living patiently;” “I am finding strength in my own practice, building strength, learning to depend on myself and manage time;” “I am taking personal responsibility for others, in my house and in the world around me;” “Affirming the positives that have come out of this time, I am looking forward and wondering how to carry on what we have learned….”
We paused to take in the beauty of what had been said. It becomes a sacred challenge as we make our way forward; how shall we carry on what we have learned, making real the Torah of the pandemic? In soil newly softened, how shall we plant seeds of new understanding of self and others? How shall we nurture tender blossoms of change as they sprout within and around us? Coming now through these Days of Awe, taking stock, giving an accounting, will this time of physical remove from each other come to be seen simply as time lost, or shall it be affirmed in days to come as having been a time of fecund possibility? Of our own lives and those of others, of justice and peace seeming so far off, of wholeness envisioned through shards of brokenness as placed upon the eyes of our holy dead, how shall we draw near and lift up our days as offerings toward a greater good? The act of offering is itself a blessing waiting to flow through each of us while our eyes are still open to see the world as it is and as it could be, all of its beauty and all of its pain. So we came on that Thursday morning to the poignant words of Torah that stop us in the best of times, bringing tears, even more so now in this time of the pandemic and the festivals of Tishrei, the Book of Life open before us.
With so much death in the land, so much suffering, how shall we read and hear the Torah’s exhortation: I have called heaven and earth today to witness through you; I have set life and death before you, blessing and curse. Choose life/u’vacharta ba’chaim, so that you may live—you and your children… (Deut. 30:19). Something of the verse feels at times almost cruel in the face of lives cut short, words seeming to mock the magnificent vulnerability of what it is to be human. Would that we could choose the length of our days and those of our loved ones, most of all of our children. All the more so, in this time of plague, disaster, and cruelty, we yearn to promise and protect from the virus, from police bullets, from fire and flood. The words of the Machzor, the holiday prayer book, haunt in their chilling reflection of the world in which we live: who by fire and who by water; who by sword and who by beast; who by earthquake, u’mi va’mageifa/and who by plague…, the last words lingering, sticking in our throats, emerging through trembling lips.
The Holy One knows our pain, crying with us, affirming our grandeur and fragility in the face of life’s mystery, the miracle that life comes to be at all, taking our hand at the point beyond which others can no longer accompany. God’s response to our inevitable human struggle is in the next verse, not removing our pain, but giving it greater context, soothing, reassuring, kissing away our tears: to love God, your God; to hearken to God’s voice and to cling firmly to God; for that is your life and the length of your days/ki hu cha’yecha v’orech yamecha… (Deut. 30:20). To choose life is to choose a way of life, that is the blessing and the length of our days, to choose a way that affirms all life, that recognizes the image of God in each one, the sacredness of creation, each of us as partners in its daily renewal, protectors, shomrei adamah/keepers of Earth, as God asked us to be even in the Garden, l’ovdah u’l’shomrah/to work it and to protect it (Gen. 2:15).
There has been much turning during this time to the Torah of other pandemics, to teachers whose words speak from their distress to ours. One of those teachers whose words have come to greater awareness is Rabbi Chaim ben B’tzalel (1525-1588) of Worms and Friedberg. In a slender volume called Sefer Ha’Chaim/the Book of Life written while in quarantine during the plague of 1578, Rabbi Chaim tells of his tribulations and of Torah as a source of life and sustenance.
With words that are strikingly familiar to us, Rabbi Chaim describes being closed off from the world, and of the fearsome intrusion of sickness and death even in his own home: for death has then risen through the windows of my house/ki alah az ha’mavet ba’chalonei beyti… within this great upheaval/b’toch ha’hafeicha ha’g’dolah…, and the doors of my house are shut upon me…. In the midst of all this, at the thought of not being able to learn Torah, Rabbi Chaim says, challilah/God forbid, ki hi chayenu v’orech yameinu/for it is our life and the length of our days…. He then draws on the very distress he is feeling, reminding us, as well, to draw new insight, new Torah, from our experience of the pandemic, as he draws succor from the Torah to be learned in his time of disease and distress. That such a time as this can be a time of Torah and creativity, he writes, kach ha’z’man ha’m’yuchad l’limud ha’aggadah/so it is that this is a unique time for the learning of the aggadah, the rich tellings and tales of the rabbis, and so for us in our weaving of tales that tell of the experience of this time…; divrei ha’aggadah ba’makom ha’da’aggah/words of aggadah in a place of d’aggah/anxiety, ki’otiot dayn k’dayn/for the letters of this are as this…. Arranged in five sections according to the five books referred to in the beloved prayer of this season, Avinu Malkenu, so Rabbi Chaim draws on the heightened awareness of life’s fragility as felt so keenly during the Days of Awe, all the more so as felt in their confluence with a season of plague and pandemic.
Naming his book after his own propitious name, it is also more than that, reflecting his deep sense of responsibility and purpose “to save our souls from death” through the wisdom gained of his learning in this time of “wrath and worry/b’af u’v’da’aggah.” On the name of his book, he then says very simply, poignantly and prayerfully, I have therefore called the name of the words of this letter Sefer Ha’chaim/the Book of Life.
In learning the Torah of the pandemic we nourish our selves and others, the Torah of Moses as the seedbed from which our own Torah, our own teaching rises, now, as always. As among the Thursday morning Torah seekers with whom I learn of Torah and life, there is delight, nachas ru’ach/soul pleasure, in the richness of wrestling together with life in all of its moods in the context of Torah, our own experience and its insights become as commentary. Such learning is the balm that Rabbi Chaim sought to draw from as healing for his own soul, then to share with others, joining souls beyond the solitudes and separations of the plague. As in the way of holy days, perhaps even, in its own way, in the days of the pandemic, solitudes and separations bridged in ways Rabbi Chaim could not have imagined, there is restorative pause now in the closing portions of this year’s Torah cycle. Beyond the tumult and strife of Torah and life, learning to navigate the harsh passages of both, nearing journey’s end there is revealed the universal essence that joins us all.
Accompanying Moses in his last hours, we face our own mortality, and are yet reminded of the ever-present opportunity to choose life, even to the end. Sharing the aggadah, the tellings of our learnings and yearnings born of the d’aggah of this time, all the accumulated worry that has so touched our souls, distance is bridged, virtual made real. Choosing the way of life and blessing in the face of death, the learning of Torah itself emblematic of life and continuity, we learn not to give up on what is important and precious no matter the difficulties that surround. So we give strength and meaning to each other, and even beauty and sweetness, helping us all to go on, for it is our life and the length of our days. Standing in the gate of possibility at the turning of the year, we ask in the face of all that besets us of where we are going and to what purpose. If before the witness of heaven and earth we would choose life so that we, and our children may live, then we are called to account for the state of the world and its future. Learning the Torah of the pandemic and living it for the sake of a greater good, that all might be able equally to choose life, so we write ourselves into the Book of Life, Sefer Ha’chaim.
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein