How Can We Avert this Evil Decree?

Image: A family huddles together wearing surgical masks, while the coronavirus hovers in the background. (Mohamed Hassan / Pixabay)

What? Are we still slogging through this pandemic? Surely it was going to be over by now!

The bad news about Covid-19 is becoming clearer to more and more of us here in the USA. Yes, we are still slogging through it. And no, it isn’t going to be “over” anytime soon or maybe at all. No amount of wishing or happy talk will change that fact.

What CAN change the evil decree, as it says in the High Holy Days liturgy we’ll be reading (over Zoom, or facebook, or in our homes) in September?

The liturgy tells us that “prayer, repentance, and charity” are the recipe for changing the evil decree. But how can that be so? What about science?

Science has its place. Science can give us the information we need to choose our actions. Science can develop treatments and vaccines. But science alone cannot change our behavior, and science alone will not defeat the coronavirus.

Prayer – The Hebrew word for prayer, tefillah, actually translates in English as “to judge oneself.” If we want to “defeat Covid,” we each need to have some serious conversations with ourselves and with God about our behavior. Am I truly doing all I can to avoid spreading Covid-19 by wearing a mask and staying 6 feet away from anyone who isn’t in my immediate household? Or is life one little exception after another? Is there more I could do? Am I pressuring anyone to “loosen up” a bit because I want something?

This may seem to you to be an odd definition of prayer, but many of our understandings from English words are heavily colored by Christian understandings of the words. In the Jewish understanding, prayer can be talking to God, but one does not need to be “religious” or even “spiritual” to pray. Praying can be putting into words what we need and what we feel, or saying words from the tradition and having our own reactions to them. Either way, we pray best when we are totally honest. That’s when prayer can work on our souls and our lives and produce real change.

Repentance – The Hebrew for repentance is teshuvah. It’s more than being sorry. It’s more than a promise to change. I like to say that teshuvah is the Jewish Cure for Guilt, because it is a very specific process for change, or as the root of the word implies, turning things around. We need to make teshuvah about individual behaviors (see “Prayer” above) and we need to make teshuvah as a country. Covid-19 has laid bare so many of the systemic problems in our society: health care based on employment, racial and economic inequities, the undervaluation of essential workers, and the evils of food and housing insecurity, to name but a few. If we hope to “defeat Covid,” we have to address those issues, make changes, and see the process through. Wishing and polite conversation will not do the job. And no, it will not be cheap — this is going to cost tax dollars. The alternative is to have this monster virus circulating indefinitely, fed by reservoirs of infection in the poorest parts of our society.

Systemic change of this sort has to begin with individuals, but it ultimately must involve speaking truth to power. We need political engagement while insisting that our leaders do what is good for ALL of us, not just for their wealthier constituents. And yes, some of us will feel that as loss: losses in tax bills, losses in power, losses in prestige. It will mean seeing gains for some whom we might judge undeserving, but remember: the virus doesn’t care whether someone is deserving or undeserving. It just sees a vulnerable target and reproduces itself.

Charity – If we are speaking Jewish, that’s tzedakah, which is like the other two a very specific concept, not the English “charity.” It is linked to tzedek, justice. To get through the immediate crisis, we have to be willing, individually, to open our purses and give to the institutions that support the vulnerable. We may need to take care of vulnerable relatives with a check or with housing. We may need to ask for help, either for ourselves or for someone else. None of those things are cheap, but then, neither is human life.

And as I said in the section on repentance, as a society we have to begin caring about justice. Justice is not revenge. We need to care about what’s fair, and “I keep all the marbles, they are mine Mine MINE” is not fair or just. We need to stop teaching the idea that “the one who dies with the most toys, wins.” We need to lose “greed is good.” We need to think more creatively than “lock them up.”

Covid-19 is offering us a lesson: each of us is linked to the other. My fate is inextricably linked to that of every other person on the planet. We breathe the same air, we exchange the same micro-organisms, we drink the same water, and no resource is truly unlimited. Whether I like it or not, we are linked. I can choose to see you with compassion, or I can hate your guts, but the virus does not care. It will make its home in any of us, and some of us will suffer horribly for it — and there’s no real test for who is who. A healthy young Broadway actor died after weeks in the hospital. An elderly person with risk factors survived. So let’s not kid ourselves.

Tefilah, teshuvah, and tzedakah can change the evil decree. It isn’t the easy path. But as far as I see, it is the only path that goes where we want to go.

L’Shanah Tovah – My Hope for 5778

Image: A ripening pomegranate still on the bush. (Photo: niritman/pixabay)

The new Jewish year of 5778 begins at sundown tonight.

It is customary to begin a new year – any new year – with hope and celebration.

I always think, on the new year, of something I once heard Rabbi Arthur Green teach: “For contemporary Jews, Rosh Hashanah is a lifecycle celebration. We arrive at that day and say, ‘I’m still alive.'”

But for many of the living this Rosh Hashanah, it’s a grim new year.

For people in the Caribbean, for people in Florida, for people in Texas and Louisiana, for people in Mexico, the new year begins with sorrows and difficulties. For some it begins with unimaginable grief.

For people with pre-existing illness, for people with disabilities, for people who may lose their healthcare or their children’s healthcare, this new year begins with a sword hanging over them. An evil bill is up for a vote in the Senate and it has a chance of passing.

For the Rohingya people of Myanmar and the Yazidi of Iraq, this year opens with genocide staring them in the face.

For immigrants already in the United States, and refugees everywhere, 5778 dawns with painful uncertainty.

For the people of the island nation of Kiribati, there is painful certainty: today climate change is drowning their entire country.

So what can we do?

A line in the High Holy Day prayers teaches us:

Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah avert the severe decree.”

This is not a magic formula for manipulating God or fate. This is a blueprint for alleviating suffering and making the world better.

TESHUVAHTeshuvah means “turning.” It’s the Jewish word for repentance. Good people sin not because they are evil monsters but because they fail to understand how their actions or words impact others. We must put down our defensiveness and self-interest for a few moments and study the wrongs of our world. We need to study what Torah teaches us about each of them. Then teshuvah requires that we seek a plan of action to right those wrongs.

TEFILLAH – We usually translate tefillah as prayer. Clever Hebrew scholars will tell you that it is a reflexive form that actually means something like “self-reproach.” But let’s not complicate things: tefillah is speech. If we wish to “avert the severe decree” we must become strategic in our speech. We must use our voices for good: we must appeal to our lawmakers and we must tell the truth. What we must NOT do is use our speech to puff ourselves up, to be “clever” to make points, to stir up hatred for hatred’s sake. Sometimes this is a fine line to walk, but if we want to make the world better, we must control our own speech.

TZEDAKAH – The common translation is “charity.” But it is actually a very precise word that has its roots in “justice.” Tzedakah is money given for the relief of suffering or need. It is not “goods in kind” and it is not “volunteering.” The tzedakah that changes the world is an attitude about money that admits that whatever is in my bank account is there because I have been fortunate as well as hard-working. (Face it, there are plenty of hardworking people who have little or nothing.) The spirit of tzedakah is a willingness to share whatever good fortune I have with those who have less. For the very poor, that may be a penny. For the very rich, it may be a fortune. And it may take many forms, all of them money: it may be in charitable giving, or the portion of taxes that goes to provide services to the poor, or in the support of relatives in difficulty. It may be the willingness to forego unfair profit that would burden the poor. No Jew is exempt from the commandment of tzedakah. No one, Jewish or not, is “undeserving” of tzedakah if they are suffering or in need.

Teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah: if we want to heal this world, we must become aware of wrongs and resolve to right them. We must speak the truth, and only the truth in whatever way we think will actually make things better. We must be willing to share what we have with others.

This is how we will avert a future of suffering.

And this is my hope for 5778: that enough people will be willing to do these things that some suffering will be averted and the world will be better.

May this new year be a shanah tovah, a good year. Amen.