Image: Ruby Slippers (XiXinXing/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)
It’s a famous line from a famous movie: “There’s no place like home.” Sometimes I wish I could click my ruby slippers together three times and be magically returned to the world before the arrival of coronavirus and COVID-19.
The message of the movie The Wizard of Oz is that home is a shelter from the storms of the world. That theme is Jewish to its core; in Judaism, we talk about the home as a little sanctuary, a mikdash me’at. For Jews in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) the world outside the home runs on the calendar of the dominant culture, the holidays are the holidays of the dominant culture. Even the clocks are not Jewish: days in the United States begin at midnight, not at sundown. Outside the house, the Jew is to some extent a stranger, trading time off for Rosh Hashanah with a colleague who would like an extra day after Christmas, and rolling their eyes at the “Happy Yom Kippur” food display in the local supermarket.
Home is a holy place, a Jewish place, even if we are not religious Jews. It’s the place we don’t have to listen to Christmas carols unless we like them.
Now home is also the place we are supposed to stay unless we have important business out in the world, keeping some critical part of the society running. The nurse, the doctor, the banker and the grocery checker go to work out in the perilous outside world while the rest of us #StayAtHome, working at our laptops, trying to remember enough from the sixth grade math to help our children learn.
Under these circumstances, home can acquire a rather unholy feeling: it’s a workplace, a schoolroom, and a bit of a jail, with an angry virus buzzing outside. Days slide one into the other, forming a fog.
Jewish tradition can help us in dealing with this new situation:
- Shabbat – Even for the most thoroughgoing secular Jew, Shabbat can be an antidote to the foggy “What day is this?” feeling. It can be a night for a nicer-than-usual meal, or an easier-than-usual meal, followed by a day of a change in routine. Shabbat can be about permission: permission to not work, permission to abandon the algebra puzzle, permission to watch a movie together. Synagogues everywhere are streaming services online – you can visit a different synagogue in a different city every week, or reconnect with a familiar community near home. Shabbat runs on Jewish time, sundown to sundown; we begin with candles and finish by looking for three stars before Havdalah.
- Shabbat can be nontraditional. If traditional ideas about Shabbat have bad connotations for you, try some variations on a theme. Maybe Shabbat is the day for a long walk around the neighborhood (socially distanced, natch.) Maybe it’s the time for a No-Nagging Zone. Shabbat can be the day to look for tiny miracles.
- Shabbat routines – Shabbat can give shape to the days before and after, too. Since Friday night is Shabbat, have a Thursday night or Friday morning routine to get ready for Shabbat. It might be preparing to make challah – or it might be something as simple as cleaning the kitchen and setting out the Shabbat candles. Use the post-Shabbat “burst of energy” to get chores or work done.
- Jewish learning opportunities abound during these weeks of #StayAtHome, and many of them do not require Hebrew or any prior knowledge. I am offering free classes on Saturday mornings and Thursday nights, and HAMAQOM is offering a Spring Festival of Jewish Learning – free tastes of our offerings via Zoom. If you’ve always wanted to learn some Hebrew, there are apps for that and online programs for it as well.
- Jewish values and mitzvot can inform how we treat one another in the home. Kindness (chesed) is a Jewish value. Caring for the body (shomer haguf) is a Jewish value, everything from brushing our teeth to getting exercise. Here is a list of 50 mitzvot, most of which have analogs in this time of pandemic. Oh, yes. and did you know that hand-washing can be a mitzvah and there is even a blessing for it?
Most of all, Jewish history gives me hope. Our people have been through horrific difficulties over the centuries, and we have endured. This is the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, but it is only one of many plagues our people have survived, from the last terrible plague in Egypt, through the Black Death, influenza, smallpox, polio and now this. Our customs and values got us through those, as a people if not always as individuals, and they will get us through COVID-19 as well.
We do not have ruby slippers to carry us back to a happier time, alas. What we do have are the tools to survive this moment in history. Lean into your Judaism, and make your home even more a Jewish home, a little sanctuary, a safe haven in a dangerous world.