The Lesson of COVID-19

Image: The world pictured as a giant coronavirus. By Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay

COVID-19 is teaching us a lesson: every one of us is interconnected. Within a species, we are intimately connected: we have the same vulnerabilities and we breathe the same air. We are not separate beings, not really, and what happens to one has a potential effect on everyone else.

I got a powerful lesson about this last Sunday morning. I’ve spent my week recovering from a fall on my patio last Sunday about noon. I tripped and fell, unable to keep my forehead from hitting the concrete. I’m on blood thinners, so this is potentially very serious: it could start a hemorrhage inside my skull and kill me.

I was able to get up unassisted, and I never lost consciousness: good signs both. Still, I had instructions from my doctor to go to the emergency room if I hit my head. Linda and I immediately went for help. I could tell that the hospital triage folk deemed it serious; they swept me into a treatment room and got an IV started immediately. A doctor came in quickly to look me over, order tests and a CAT scan.

As it turned out, I was lucky: no brain bleed. I have a nasty black eye, a bruised nose, and assorted scrapes, but I am alive.

I was even luckier to be living in Alameda County, California, where we have a relatively low COVID-19 transmission rate. I needed an emergency room and skilled docs and nurses and I got them. I needed a CAT scan, and I needed to sit for 12 hours so they could watch me to see if I was going to have a problem.

In Alaska and in Idaho, I’d have had a very different Sunday afternoon. There entire hospitals are overwhelmed and they cannot do much for aging ladies who trip over their own feet, even if they might die.

COVID-19 is teaching us a lesson: every creature on earth is interconnected. Within our species of homo sapiens, we have the same vulnerabilities, we breathe the same air, we need the same resources. We may like to talk about being “free” but a virus knows and cares nothing about “freedom.” The virus crossed over from the animal kingdom, and it is chewing its way through humanity as I type this. We have the means to slow it down — vaccination — and to some of us, getting vaccinated seems like the smart thing to do.

For other people, it is a harder decision. They’ve heard rumors about reactions to the shots. They’ve heard misinformation from the Internet and from sources they thought reliable. For some people, it’s about not wanting to be told what to do by a bunch of people they experience as smug and annoying.

I can understand all that. But I also understand that in Alaska and Idaho they are unable to take care of people with heart attacks and possible brain bleeds, because they have had to move to “crisis standards of care” also known as rationed care. If one individual chooses not to get vaccinated, other people may lose their chances at life.

The ER was pretty busy Sunday. There was a person with chest pains, and another who had had a gnarly commercial kitchen accident. There were others I don’t know anything about, they just came and went during my 12 hour vigil. Care was available for us. That was because outside the hospital (and inside it too!) people are wearing masks, 77% of residents are fully vaccinated and 90.4% of residents have had at least one vaccination.

I am grateful that my fellow Alameda County residents are looking out for me. I’ll do my best to look out for them. When we thought COVID was “over” in July, and we ditched our masks, it came roaring back at us. Luckily for us, the mask mandates and high vax rate has brought all that back under control. Because it is under control, there was room for me in the ER.

A portion of the Book of Leviticus is known to scholars as “The Holiness Code.” A chunk of it addresses this interconnection of people, our responsibilities to take care of one another. I think it’s worth pondering in this context:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Adonai your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.

You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am Adonai.

You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am Adonai.

You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.

Do not go about as a talebearer among others; deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am Adonai.

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt because of them.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am Adonai.

Leviticus 19: 8-19.

We Jews are commanded to pay attention to our connections with others. We are commanded to take the needs of strangers seriously, to treat the rich and poor equally, to love our fellow as ourselves. There’s nothing there about “the deserving poor” or the “innocent victim” or any other such loophole that will allow us to exclude someone. There’s nothing about an exemption for wishing evil on people with whom we disagree. Just “love your fellow as yourself.”

We are all part of the web of connection: the healthy and the sick, the wealthy and the poor, the clever and the simple, heck, even Democrats and Republicans. Like it or not, we’re in this together.

10 Survival Strategies for Tough Times

Image: Toy boat floats on green pond water. Photo by SofiLayla/Pixabay.

Here are the things that keep my boat afloat during these difficult times.

  1. Rituals. Life’s small rituals are very important. When I get up, I want my coffee. But I don’t want someone to hand it to me, I want to make it, because the making of coffee is one of my morning rituals. I measure the coffee, put it in the cone, heat the water, pour it over, and… coffee! After I have drunk the coffee, I’m ready for the world. For others it may be a bedtime ritual, or a bathing ritual, or the ritual of putting on cosmetics. These little rituals of life orient us so that we can keep our equilibrium.
  2. Prayer. I put my worries and my hopes into words, and I either write them out or say them. When I have no words, I listen, in case God or the Universe or somebody wants to communicate. I also say the prayers of Jewish tradition that help me navigate, that remind me of my path.
  3. Charity. The Hebrew words is tzedakah, but it means giving from the cash resources I have to alleviate the suffering and privation of others. This reminds me that there are many people in the world worse off than I am. Tzedakah helps me keep my perspective.
  4. Acts of Kindness. These are also known in Hebrew as gimilut hasidim. It isn’t enough for me to give money. I spend some time doing acts of kindness, which have gotten tricky in the age of Covid. Used to be, I did volunteer work. Now that I’m sequestering away from the virus, I do acts of kindness by being a better listener when someone needs comfort. Or I cook some food to share, and drop it off on someone’s porch.
  5. Study. Torah study serves several purposes. If I aim high enough at difficult material, studying completely occupies my brain, and gives me relief from worry. I can’t translate Aramaic-infused Hebrew AND perseverate over the government at the same time — I’m just not that smart! — and by studying Torah, I am learning more about that map I’m trying to follow.
  6. Busy Hands. This takes several forms: cleaning the house is mundane self-care, but it also reminds me that I am responsible for my corner of the universe. Gardening gives me a sense of connectedness to the natural world. Knitting literally keeps my hands busy, so that I don’t eat my emotions, and it gives me things to give away to friends and the many support people in my life.
  7. Creative action, aka Arts and Crafts. I am not a great artist, but I enjoy putting the colors together for my knitting. I draw cartoons — mostly pictures of turtles or lions– on blank cards, for my wife to color. She loves to color, and I love to draw the cards. Then we put notes on the bank and mail them as postcards to friends. Finally, we cut each others’ hair and laugh at the results. Making a little bit of beauty in the world makes us feel better. Getting our hair out of our eyes is a relief!
  8. Saying “I love you” and “Thank you.” I try not to let a day go by without letting the people I love KNOW that I love them. I might say it straight out, or I might tell them something specific for which I’m grateful. It lifts them up and it lifts me up, too. Another daily vitamin for the spirit is gratitude: thanking someone. They might be a public person who has done something I like, or someone who has done me a kindness, but I try to give thanks to someone every day. Thanking God is good, but I find that thanking people has a special oomph of its own.
  9. Care of the Body. Eating right, keeping clean, and exercising are not glamorous activities, but they are another way of acknowledging my place in creation. I’m a bodily creature, and I’d better take care of this body if I want to keep living in it.
  10. Music and Art. I try to read something good, or look at art, or listen to good music every day. I need the art of others. The arts affirm the best in humanity, including in me.

Looking back on this list, it seems so mundane! But it’s the truth, it’s what keeps me going. If you have a little Jewish knowledge, you may also have noticed that most of these things are mitzvot, commandments. Torah is an excellent guide to living!

What keeps you going in these difficult times? What keeps your boat afloat?

Prayer For Those In Isolation

Image: Person sitting alone with Coronavirus floating outside. (Tumisu / Pixabay)

Of all the cruelties of Covid-19, perhaps the most cruel thing is the isolation it imposes.

It isolates those who are hardest hit with the disease, when the best treatment available is a ventilator. For the patient to endure this treatment, they have to be sedated, and they are left without the comfort of human interaction, even with the strangers caring for them.

It isolates all those who are hospitalized with the disease, because everyone who enters the Covid-19 treatment environment is put at risk for the disease. Family and friends cannot follow, cannot visit in person. Only healthcare workers who tend the sick at a risk to their own lives can be allowed to be there.

It isolates all who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, because suddenly they have become not only a human being but also a vector of disease. They must isolate themselves completely from everyone, lest someone be infected.

It isolates those who are known contacts of the infected person, because the disease is so contagious that they have to sequester themselves lest they infect another person.

It isolates the vulnerable healthy, those with underlying conditions that put them at risk for the worst of Covid-19. Every human contact carries risk for them, so to whatever extent they can they must isolate themselves. Their isolation is necessary but often psychologically brutal. It is painful to go months without so much as the touch of a human hand or an in-person smile.

Covid-19 isolates everyone: those of us who hide from it, and those who are perceived as carriers. It even isolates the who don’t believe in it, because they are left stranded in a make-believe world that endangers them and the people they love.

Oh God, who created each of us in Your image, who created the potential for this deadly disease, hear our cries and deliver us from the tentacles of this misery!

Inspire us to find ways to reach out to one another for comfort, while keeping ourselves safe.

Help us to retain our humanity while we avoid this virus.

Help us to treat one another with compassion.

And please, please God, let justice and mercy guide those distributing the vaccines.

O God, who listened to the cries of Your people in Egypt, hear our cries now and heal us.

And let us say, Amen.

Jewish Mourning in the Time of Pandemic

Image: Jewish cemetery/ (Michał Buksa /Pixabay)

I just taught a class on mourning in Judaism, and it was a sharp reminder of how strange times are right now. Funerals are strange right now: we cannot gather in a chapel, we cannot crowd together for comfort at graveside. Some of my colleagues have officiated at funerals with only themselves and cemetery staff present, using a smartphone camera to allow the mourners to see. Shiva tends to be virtual these days, too, and I weep for the mourners who have to sit at home, alone.

So how can we help, those of us who want to observe the mitzvot of comforting mourners?

First, we can check with our rabbis about how they are handling funerals right now. They will have directions about what is helpful and what is not. Please don’t argue with the rabbi, or tell them that you have a great idea for a better option. I promise you, they have agonized over every bit of the arrangements already.

We can help by letting others know about the shiva, or about the death itself, without adding gossipy bits.

We can help by not criticizing the family about arrangements that are not ideal. They are already aware that things aren’t normal, and they should not be bothered with things that are out of their control.

We can help by attending the virtual funeral, if that is the arrangement. If it is not set up as a virtual event, we can help by not causing a fuss if we are not one of the very few who are invited to attend in person.

We can attend virtual shivas, even if we’ve already spent six hours on Zoom that day. Mourners need to see that they are not abandoned at such a time. They need us to be present, even if the only possible presence is virtual.

We can help by checking in with mourners by phone, or by text message, or by email.

We can help by not complaining if they take a while to answer.

We can help by sending notes of condolence – you know the old fashioned kind, on paper?

We can help by sending mourners our good memories of the person who died.

We can help by sharing photos, if we have some.

We can help by offering to bring food by, to drop off no-contact style, by the door.

We can help by sending food via a local restaurant or deli.

We can help by continuing to keep contact, even after the first week or month.

We can listen, and keep listening. Sometimes mourners need to tell stories again and again. One of the kindest things we can do is to say, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it” when they worry that they are talking too much about their loved one.

We can help by notifying clergy, if we get the sense that the mourner is getting depressed or otherwise suffering. Rabbis and cantors want to know when a member of the congregation is suffering, but they can’t know if no one tells them.

The day will eventually come when we can have proper funerals and shiva again. But until then, our mourners need us, the people they may only barely know in their Jewish community, to be there for them.

Prayer for Opening Day: Baseball in 2020

Image: Batting practice before a spring training game at Las Vegas Ballpark, March 2020. Home of the Las Vegas Aviators. Photo by Ruth Adar.

As is my habit every year, I offer a Prayer for the Beginning of Baseball Season. Major League Baseball has chosen to go ahead with a short season this year, with changes to make play somewhat safer – beginning with the fact that there will be no fans in the stands. Still, some of us worry. Here is a version of my usual prayer for opening day, with an addendum for Covid-19.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created human beings out of the clay of the earth, breathing into them the breath of Your life. You set within each human being a love of play, a sense of fair play, and a desire for games that will satisfy both the body and the mind. From these human desires You brought forth baseball, a game of bats and balls played upon the diamond. It is an orderly game, as Your creation is orderly, and a mysterious game, as Your creation is mysterious, revealing to its devotees deep truths about Your world.

It is a game subject to times and seasons, and we give thanks for the fact that we are now at the beginning of the season of baseball. Amen.

It is a game subject to rules and statistics, and we give thanks for the Official Baseball Rules as well as their league variations, and also for the many statistics that add to the strategies of managers and the enjoyment of fans. Amen.

May our foes be unable to defeat us. Amen.

Let them be filled with dread at the sight of our bats. Amen.

And when the forces of Light and Dark join upon the diamond field, let our players play uninjured and mighty. Let the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd fill every ear and every heart, so that the words of the prophet may be fulfilled: Play Ball!

And when this season nears completion, when the dwindling hours of day reflect the dwindling number of teams in post-season play, let our team remain victorious to the last inning, so that we may glorify Your Name with the World Series trophy. Amen.

And in this very challenging year of 5780, keep players, umps, and coaches mindful of safety measures and safe from the ravages of Covid-19. May the consistent use of precautions prevent the infection of their families and friends. Let this game be the restoring balm that it has always been for so many. Bless our play, and give us respite from the wrack of pandemic. May this year’s difficulties raise us all to greater standards of honest play, and to a greater appreciation for the blessings this game brings to us. Amen.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who enlivens our hearts with games. Amen.

A rabbinical note: The opening of the new baseball season (Rosh Z’man Beisbol) is a major festival for many American Jews. Discussions on the holiday are recorded in Masekhet Miskhakim (Games) and in Hilkhot Z’man Beisbol (Laws of the Season of Baseball) as well as in HaYachalom HaHakir(The Precious Diamond), a mystical work. The prayer above is from Sefer Greenberg, a book of prayers attributed to Jewish baseball great Hank Greenberg, although those skeptical Wissenschaft yekkies insist that it is likely a pseudepigraphal piece, probably written in about 5768 by a ba’al teshuvah in Detroit, probably a Tigers fan.

The addition “In this very challenging year” is the work of your humble servant, and any error or overreach in it is hers and hers alone.

Song for a Plagued Passover

Image: Meir Ariel’s portrait on the jacket of his “Best Of” collection

I have discovered an Israeli song that really speaks to me – my modern Hebrew is rough, so I hope that the translation below isn’t too far off. Avarnu et Paro – Na’avor Gam et Zeh is a song about things that wear at our humanity, and the impulse in Jewish tradition to persevere anyway.

There is an expression in Hebrew: gam zeh ya’avor — “this too will pass.” In this song, the singer, Meir Ariel (1942 – 1999) sings about all the things that annoy and discourage him, and finishes each verse with “We passed over Pharaoh, and we shall pass this too.”

Passover this week calls up our communal memory of slavery in Egypt, and of our deliverance from that terrible situation. We are now in the midst of what I can only describe as a plague, a miasma of disease and in some places, mismanagement as well. It is one of those terrible times in history in which many individuals do not survive, and it is a struggle to retain our humanity. Still we can survive it as a people, if we persist.

This is my mantra for Passover of 2020 / 5780: “We passed over Pharaoh, this will pass over too.”

Income tax, they made me pay extra
Value Added Tax, they got me with that too,
The electric company has cut me off,
The Water Administration shut me off -
I saw that I was deteriorating into a crisis, I started hallucinating ...
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

A computer error cost me a million, ATM swallowed my account balance, 
An electronic secretary denied me an interview, 
The DMV denied me a license 
To a mechanical lawyer, I dropped a token in the mouth slot ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I learned a useful and necessary profession 
So I don't get pushed and pressed, I persevered, 
I was diligent although the system was failing, 
I found myself with the work getting sparse ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

Sometimes I am trapped on a crowded bus 
Or coming out of an exit, I am tense and urgent, 
Sometimes in the street jostling and rubbing, 
In demand for some relief, 
In the back, in the ribs, sometimes in the face, that elbow ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I turned aimlessly for a while, Without definition and without compromise, 
I lost height and consciousness, I thought maybe that defined it, 
To give an sharp and clear answer - I was torn about it. 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.
 
And now I'm stuck in the cutting edge, 
And to be honest I'm pretty indifferent. 
The situation is bad but I don't feel, 
I have no heart for all the stuff the screen presents. 
And the people's government goes down the road again - to my disgust ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

Sheltering in Place, Feeling Lonely?

Image: Person sitting on a windowsill, looking out. (Pexels / Pixabay)

We are living through an unprecedented time. A pandemic is traveling around the globe, a very contagious disease that can cause, in some, a horrible death. Many of our scientists say our best hope for survival is to try to keep the rate of infection down by sheltering at home, to keep the disease from overwhelming our medical personnel and facilities.

Know that if you are sheltering in place, you are doing a mitzvah. You are one less vector of disease out on the street. You are saving lives.

If you are out and about because you are an “essential worker” (medical, infrastructure, law enforcement, first responder, etc.) you are also doing a mitzvah. You are literally saving lives and keeping the lights on. God bless you.

If you are out and about because someone needs groceries, or assistance, you are doing a mitzvah, as well. Just be sure that you do everything in your power to prevent infecting others and to keep yourself healthy.

Staying home – or going only to do essential work – can be boring. Most of us human beings have an inborn desire to be out and doing, to be social. However, if we are not extremely aggressive about distancing ourselves from others right now, we will endanger ourselves, our families, and countless others. So what are we social creatures to do?

  1. Use the phone and video to connect with family and friends. I talk every day to my sons and their partners, and to my grandson. It breaks my heart not to see and touch them, but having some contact keeps it bearable. You may even want to set aside a time when you always talk – routine can be very comforting. Unless you really need to talk about something difficult, avoid arguments. Focus on sharing love.
  2. Use social media wisely. Use social media to connect with friends, and to learn about online events and resources that will sustain you. Do not repeat rumors, speculate, or seek out conspiracy theories, even for “fun.”
  3. Learn and/or pray and/or play with others online. Look for learning opportunities, prayer opportunities, and play opportunities online. I will list a few I know about in my next post.
  4. Revive the art of letter writing. You can email someone without any physical contact at all. You can write a letter to a friend — there is something special about a card or a handwritten letter. If someone in your circle dies, you can write the mourners with your memories of that person.
  5. If you know someone at home with children right now, contact them and ask if you can help via video, reading a story aloud or doing a “show and tell.” If they say “no, thank you” respect that, but it might be a real gift to a parent trying to work from home while juggling children as well. Teens don’t want someone to “read them a story” but they may still enjoy a chance for an audience that isn’t parental. With them, listening is the most important thing: they need adults to listen to how this situation feels to them.
  6. If you have a skill that might entertain others, share it! You can do that by making a YouTube video, or a tutorial posted to Facebook, or via a video chat.
  7. Reconnect: what about using social media to reach out to old high school classmates, friends from some previous time, to touch base?
  8. Exercise. I find that when I’m feeling irritable and lonely, working up a good sweat can lift my spirits. What you do exactly will depend on your ability and your fitness, but be creative. Also there are some great resources online for free exercise videos, etc.
  9. Take political action: Write or call your elected officials and tell them what you think of the job they are doing right now.
  10. Take social justice action: Donate or raise funds for local organizations that care for people in need. The income gap in our economy means that this is a time of severe injustices: homelessness was bad before, but now it puts people at high risk for COVID-19. Hunger was bad before, but now it weakens the immune systems of young and old alike. If you have any extra funds, share what you can. If you don’t have extra funds, you can still help by “signal boosting” on social media – share opportunities for others to do good.

If you have other ideas about dealing with loneliness, I hope you will share them in the comments.

While We are Home, Things We Can Do to Help

Image: Cat stares at a door, wanting out. (Krystyna Kaleniewicz / Pixabay)

I’m 65, with significant risk factors relative to COVID-19. My wife is 71, and has even more risk factors. We are doing our best to isolate as completely as we can. I am aware that I am a happier person when I feel useful, which is why I’m teaching more free classes. (See Growing Jewishly in a Challenging Year: Options for Study Online.)

Today the SF Bay Area county health departments asked everyone to shelter in place at home for three weeks beginning midnight on March 17 (tonight.)

Isolating is not a selfish or cowardly act. We are saving lives by staying home, washing hands, not touching our faces, not overloading the hospitals, and doing all the things the health professionals say. The example of Italy should be all the warning we require as we try to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.

Here are some ideas for ways to spend our time and improve our lives and the lives of others while we are doing our part to flatten the curve:

  • Continue being careful at home – when were your doorknob and doorbell last cleaned with disinfectant?
  • Go through they rolodex or the directory on my phone – who do I know who may be feeling very lonely and scared? Give them a call and listen more than talk. Listening is helping right now. Reach out via email, if phones aren’t the best option.
  • On social media, I watch who spreads reliable news, and who spreads titillating rumors. I follow the reliable news spreaders, and unfollow the rumor mongers. I refuse to let their garbage work on my head.
  • Now is a great time to revive our spiritual practices, or to develop one: meditate, or pray, or exercise with spiritual intent.
  • Now is a great time to learn! Take an online class, use software to learn a foreign language, read, read, read! YouTube and other online resources can have you exchanging greetings in Hebrew in no time.
  • Public libraries often offer access to e-books.
  • Eat as healthfully as we can.
  • Get enough sleep! Sleep boosts our immune systems, and too many people are on a sleep deficit.
  • Exercise is important. Stretch, lift weights (books?), do a little cardio. I do 20 minutes of exercise every day. If you are in an apartment, call or leave a note to the people downstairs asking when the best time for you to make noise.
  • Tzedakah: for those of us financially secure enough to do so, this is a great time to give to charities that care for people with food or housing insecurity.
  • Do you have fantasies about writing a book? This is a great time to keep a diary: we are living through history.
  • We need to care for our pets. Appreciate their company. It isn’t a great time for cats or dogs to run around outside, though: if they get lost, we cannot go look for them.
  • Passover is coming! We each need to prepare according to our observance and our situation. (See Passover Prep: Begin in Egypt.) (More about Passover in a future post.)
  • Be kind to other members of our households. This is a stressful time, and it’s easy to get cranky. It’s a good time to practice appreciation and to let criticism go.
  • Find a synagogue that streams services online. Start with your local community but I will see about posting a list of streaming services in a later post.
  • Count our blessings, beginning with life and breath.
  • Be aware that there are some who are in difficult situations, with unpleasant or abusive housemates. Hold them in our hearts.

Ideas for those home with children:

  • Make and decorate cards and send them to loved ones (or save for later delivery.) Index cards or folded printer paper make great cards. “Junk mail” can make collages.
  • Reading to kids and letting them read to us – and to each other! – is a wonderful activity.
  • Beware too much scary news on TV.
  • Make puppets out of old socks, and rehearse a show for the adults to watch when they take a break from home-work!
  • Put music on – everyone dance!
  • This is a great opportunity to teach age-appropriate household skills to kids. Even little ones can “dust” with a cloth.
  • Set up phone and video chats for the kids with their friends and with family they can’t visit right now.
  • For older kids, this might be a great time to learn a craft. YouTube has lots of great videos, and both knitting and crochet can be learned with any string, if you have needles or a hook.
  • Use YouTube to learn Jewish songs, and songs from your family’s heritage.

In the Face of Pandemic: Mitzvot

Image: COVID-19 virus against the image of DNA. (Pete Linforth / Pixabay)

If you are looking for information about COVID-19 (“coronavirus”) then I recommend you look at the FAQ on the CDC website. I’m a rabbi, not a doctor, and I’m sticking to my area of expertise: how does Torah figure into this picture?

However big or little a deal COVID-19 turns out to be, Torah provides us with guidelines for dealing with the situation. There are opportunities for mitzvot all around us. A few of them:

Pikuach nefesh (Preserve life!) – One of the most pressing mitzvot, one that outweighs even the keeping of Shabbat, is the preservation of life. What does that mean, in this case? It means that we must be vigilant so that we do not knowingly or unknowingly pass the infection to someone at risk of dying from it.

Lishmor haguf (Guard the body!) – It means that each of us has a sacred duty to stay informed and to follow the practices that medical experts recommend for preventing the spread of the virus: handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home if we are sick with a respiratory ailment. Even if we don’t know someone at risk of death from it, we do not yet fully understand the ways that Covid-19 damages the body in the long term. Taking every precaution against it is a mitzvah.

Veahavtem et ger (Love the stranger) – Xenophobia (fear of strangers) and racism are always wrong. People of Asian descent have been experiencing a rise in anti-Asian attitudes and action since the outbreak of the virus. They are no more likely to be a source of infection than anyone else. It is important that we not fall into such behavior or tolerate it in our presence. Jokes give permission. Sarcastic comments give permission. Don’t give permission.

Lo telekh rakhil b’amekha (Do not run around telling tales to people) – Make sure that everything you repeat is from a reliable source, and cite your sources. Don’t spread gossip or unreliable information. Don’t do it on social media, don’t do it in the workplace. Don’t speculate (“I bet they are going to start rationing Tylenol!”) because that can be repeated as a “fact” by someone careless and cause panic.

Give tzedakah – As with any other misfortune that affects the whole of society, the poor will be hardest hit. Contribute to organizations that care for and feed the poor. Malnourishment and homelessness make people more susceptible to disease. Anything we can do to relieve the suffering of the poor will reward all of us.

Those are just a few mitzvot that occur to me. What about you? Are there mitzvot you think particularly apply to this situation? Please add them to the comments!