These weeks have been a whirlwind of emotion. Rebecca Ganetzky describes it well in her teaching about the emotional contours of Torah trope. Last weekend the city of Philadelphia felt like the Simchat Torah celebration that never was. And following moments of much needed joy, the painful reality that we continue to live through a pandemic returned. As the number of daily cases of COVID continues to set new records, we long for ways to care for our community members who are sick and isolated.
More and more I find myself turning to prayer, carving out mere moments, maybe ten minutes, to punctuate the day with a single Amidah. First and foremost, I pray for refuah shleimah, for healing of body and mind for all those impacted by this pandemic. I take a moment to call to mind all those in my orbit in need of healing. But the truth is, these days, that does not feel like enough. There is a profoundly communal nature to our suffering.
A dvar Torah published way back in March begs the question:
How widespread does disease have to be in order to pass the threshold and trigger a communal response of prayer or fasting?
The Shulhan Arukh, a 16th century law code, writes:
"Just as we fast...in times of drought, we also fast for other disasters...and so for plague. What is considered a plague? If a city of 500 inhabitants has three deaths a day (from plague) for three consecutive days, this is defined as a plague" (Orah Hayyim, 576).
I am not sure how this would correspond to the CDC's definition and metrics relative to how many cases per 100,000 people in a given population. But I do know that it reveals a longstanding rabbinic sensitivity to a threshold in the definition of an epidemic. One, that in my own bones, I feel we have crossed.
While I am not yet prepared (nor authorized!) to call for a public fast day, I do want to posit that it might be time that we each personally, and even more so communally, begin to orient ourselves toward prayer as a response to this plague. The aforementioned dvar Torah actually shares such examples across time and place, from cholera to the coronavirus.
Some even reference the evocative words of Avinu Malkeinu:
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ כַּלֵּה דֶּֽבֶר וְחֶֽרֶב וְרָעָב וּשְׁ֒בִי וּמַשְׁחִית וְעָוֹן וּשְׁ֒מַד מִבְּ֒נֵי בְרִיתֶֽךָ
Avinu Malkeinu, remove pestilence, sword, famine, captivity, destruction, iniquity, and religious persecution from the members of Your covenant.
אָבִֽינוּ מַלְכֵּֽנוּ מְנַע מַגֵּפָה מִנַּחֲלָתֶֽךָ
Avinu Malkeinu, withhold the plague from Your inheritance.
In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Chayei Sarah, following the trauma of the Akedah, of a father's near sacrifice of his son, Isaac goes out into the field to meditate.
Va'yetze Yitzchak lasu'ach ba'sadeh lifnot arev.
And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the turning of evening (Gen. 24:63).
About this moment, the Talmud exclaims: What is meditating in a field if not prayer (Berachot 26b). And from this we learn that we should pray in the evening.
Rebbe Nachman, z"l, digs deeper into these words and notices that the word lasu'ach - meaning to meditate, pray, or converse - is also the root of si'ach, a bush, a shrub, even a blade of grass. It refers to green and verdant growing things.
One of my mentors, Rabbi Victor Reinstein, translates Rebbe Nachman's teaching this way:
"Know, that when a person prays in a field, then all of the grasses come within the prayer, and aid the one praying, and give to the one praying strength in their prayer. In this way, prayer is called 'sicha' (in all of its layers of meaning, prayer, meditation, and shrub)" (Likutei Moharan Tinyana 11).
L'cha dodi, come beloveds. Let us go out to meditate in the field that is Shabbat. May we feel supported from within and around as we pray for the cessation of all disease, war, famine, exile, destruction, and this very real plague. And may we know that the natural world is praying alongside us, aiding and strengthening us in this time of isolation. On this November Shabbat, we need only look out our windows and take note of the colorful leaves to join in the conversation (lasu'ach ba'sadeh).
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.