Most days my kids ask me, "When will Coronavirus end?" By which they mean, when can we play with our friends and grandparents? When will life go back to normal? And most days I say, "I don't know when, but I know it will." In the way that parenting is full of benevolent lies, I hug my kids and swallow these false words of reassurance. My heartfelt words to my children are false because while shelter-in-place orders might end, the experience of this pandemic is meant to change us. Returning to normal will not serve us.
In the prophetic words of Sonya Renee Taylor:
"We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature."
In the Torah portion this week, the Jewish people receive the gift of shmitah, a time when we pause and recalibrate so that our land may be healthier and our society more equal. For nearly all of human existence, the concept of shmitah has been upheld as an idealistic and metaphorical paradigm, rather than a necessary part of reality. In her newly released essay, "The pandemic is a portal," the author Arundhati Roy writes, "Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could." Perhaps we are living through a kind of global shmitah, if not for the land specifically, certainly for the ozone. And I pray also that it may also come to be for the workers, as we watch more and more unions striking.
It is important to remember two simultaneous impulses for shmitah - it is at once a call for economic justice and for environmental sustainability. So much so that the rabbis warn us that there are four periods of time in each seven-year shmitah cycle when deathly plagues increase. As it turns out, each of these ominous periods is caused by systemic greed and inequity. The fifth chapter of Pirkei Avot reads, "It would happen in the fourth year because tithes were not given to the poor in the third year. It would happen in the sevent year because tithes were not given to the poor in the sixth year..." And so on. Today we find ourselves in the fifth year of the shmitah cycle living through a deathly plague that reveals the gross injustices of the world.
No part of me would choose this pandemic. But I do feel we have a choice in how we live through it and what we learn from it. Arundhati Roy continues, "Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."
Perhaps the daily question is not, "When will coronavirus end?" but rather, "What will it take to pass through this portal?" For the mystics, the concept of Olam Habah, often translated as the world to come, is not primarily about messianic end times. They return our focus to the here and now. It calls us to participate in the redemption of the world, as we together bring about the world that is coming.
As we travel through this portal, may we have compassion for ourselves and each other as we grieve our losses. And may we have the courage to walk through lightly as we fight for the world that awaits us.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek Synagogue through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.