I write to you from my dining room table that over the last 5 plus weeks has become my “Shelter in Place” study. We have all made significant adjustments to our lives in this time of self-quarantine. Each of us is striving to remain healthy and to ensure the health of those around us.
Each day we hear stories that are heartbreaking, but we also hear stories that provide uplift and hope. Monday morning, I studied a text with a group of Temple Jeremiah members from the book of Leviticus 18:5—just a few chapters later than our double Torah portion for this Shabbat, Tazria-Metzora. The verse reads: “You shall observe My rules and My judgements that in so doing a person (Hebrew: Adam) should live by them, I am Adonai.”
From this verse, we learn at least three important lessons. First, it is up to the individual to take responsibility and follow these instructions. This is a lesson that harkens back to the Garden of Eden with the use of the Hebrew, Adam, for person. Adam alone had the choice whether or not to obey God’s only instruction. Adam chose poorly but we do not have to follow in suit. We can choose life and live by the instructions that lead to blessing and life.
Second, life is a gift that cannot and should not be taken for granted. Arthur Green teaches about this verse from Leviticus: “We proclaim that life itself is a sacred gift and that God’s presence is to be found in daily living. We exemplify that presence in human decency and kindness. God is glorified in the sacred moments that enrich the cycles of our years and lives, in the legacy that has carried us forward for so many centuries, allowing us to survive suffering and degradation with our heads held high.”
Third, the preservation of life, Pikuach Nefesh, overrides any other instruction in the Torah or any instruction that flows from it. Even Shabbat can be overridden in order to protect and preserve life. As Jews, we have all struggled to balance our sacred traditions with the directive to protect and preserve life. Worship, study, acts of loving kindness—we have adapted our practice in each of these pillars of Jewish existence to the reality of life at this moment.
All three of these lessons remind us that each moment is precious, and we must fully live in it. Our lives have changed dramatically, radically. And it is normal—it’s even rational—to look ahead to the time when our lives will return to what feels like normal. Still, we must be present in this moment, now, and not look too far beyond it. This moment right now is a gift. It is a gift to be alive, and this gift comes with responsibility. To see the sacred requires that we respond with decency and kindness.
Decency and kindness will see us through this most challenging time. Decency and kindness are the best response to this sacred moment. I pray that you all remain safe and well cherishing the precious and sacred gift that is life.
Rabbi Paul F. Cohen, D.Min., D.D