A Message from Rabbi Berkman: Drawing Upon Jewish Tradition for Wisdom and Hope in Challenging Times

Dear Friends,

This is a time of great uncertainty and fear. It is also a time of communal celebration, such as the Purim festivities we enjoyed earlier this week, and looking ahead to the joy of Passover, less than a month from now. To be a Jew is to be connected to community both in the present moment and through the generations. Without connectedness, without community, one cannot live a Jewish life. Traditions such as requiring a minyan (10 adult Jews) to recite prayers such as the Barechu and the Kaddish, as well as to chant from the Torah, have been handed down through hundreds of generations, and are as deeply embedded in the Jewish people as the words of our sacred texts themselves.

Another of our most deeply held Jewish values is the sanctity of human life. As the ancient text of the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4) interprets a verse from the book of Genesis, after Cain kills his brother Abel: “‘The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10). It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother” meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants…to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish…he is deemed…as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul…he is deemed…as if he had saved a whole world.”

We find ourselves now at a time when the most urgent calls of our tradition – to be in community and to do everything within our power to protect and preserve human life – are at odds. The spread of Covid-19/Coronavirus requires us to practice “social distancing” – refraining from gathering together so that we can “flatten the curve” of this pandemic. By taking this imperative seriously, we can help save lives. And yet, because the positive impact of social distancing can only be seen over time, and on a communal level, we cannot directly see that we are saving lives; we also know that this disease will impact some of us less than others. Therefore, it can feel like an overreaction and/or particularly difficult to implement “social distancing” because being together in community is a profound human need, particularly in times of crisis and anxiety.

This moment, however, calls us to look well beyond our own wellbeing and that of our families and our “immediate orbit,” and to take drastic and even unprecedented actions in order to preserve the wellbeing of dozens, hundreds, thousands, and ultimately millions of people we don’t know (coronavirus spreads exponentially – just one person’s infection can lead to many others). Now is the time to live the truth that our tradition tells us again and again: We must love the stranger, too, as ourselves. Ourselves, our neighbors (the ones who are “like us”) and those who are different and far away from us whether physically, culturally, socioeconomically, or in any other way: we are all equal in the face of a deadly virus. Now is the moment when it is our responsibility – it is upon us – aleynu– to live our most deeply-held values as Jews and members of a sacred community. Though it is extremely challenging, disruptive, inconvenient, and unsettling, now is the time to implement the command to love each other. Each and every other. By helping each other to stay well.

Though Judaism must be lived in community and in relationship, in this moment, it is a sacred obligation not to gather together, to uphold the greatest mitzvah of all, pikuach nefesh. This is the Jewish legal understanding that preserving human life overrides any other sacred obligation. If we take seriously the urgent recommendations that we avoid gathering together, we are taking a powerful action to save human lives. It is so hard to see that, because on a day-to-day basis it will mostly feel like a deep loss not to come together and we will not see the immediate impact of our sacred action. The greatest success of social distancing will only be known in retrospect, when we can (God willing) then say: “Well, Coronavirus didn’t end up being a big deal and overwhelming our health systems and killing or seriously injuring nearly as many as we thought.”

As the story of Esther, which we just recounted on Purim, reminds us: Whether we like it or not, sometimes we are called to take unprecedented and unexpected action to save lives. A well-known verse from the megillah (the scroll) of Esther recounts that Mordecai says to Esther, when she is scared to speak up, reveal her Jewish identity, and thereby save the Jewish people: “Perhaps it is for just such a time as this that you were created.”

This is uncharted territory, and it feels easier to go about our lives relatively normally and hope that the scourge goes away and doesn’t come too close to us. However, we already know that it is not if, but when, the disease will directly impact us or those we know and love, and that it is up to us right now to take every action we possibly can that can lead to the preservation of human life and the alleviation of suffering.

The measures that the TOS community will be taking are explained below, and I have provided a list of resources to provide important information as we navigate this challenging time.

I am privileged to be able to lead our community in facing this challenge, and to help us draw upon the ancient wisdom of Jewish tradition as a source of wisdom, strength, comfort, and connection. We are so fortunate to live in a time of unprecedented possibilities of virtual connection, and the clergy and staff of TOS are working hard to create opportunities for our community to participate in services and educational offerings over online platforms (see below, or see above?) We are also thinking creatively about additional opportunities enforced “social distancing” might actually create for further connection! Stay tuned for details on a weekday Torah study class and other ideas. We also welcome your input, and we want to hear from you what would be helpful during this strange time. Let’s work together to make a time of “social distancing” actually a time of deeper and more inclusive engagement for all of our community.

Rabbi Schaefer and I are here to support all of you as we navigate this unprecedented challenge. Please feel free to reach out to us by email or phone and let us know how we can best support you and your loved ones.

With blessings for briyut (health), refuah (healing), and chizuk (strength). May we move through this time finding resources within and between and beyond us that we may not have known before, and be stronger and more compassionate for this experience.

Rabbi Berkman

Selected Resources:

For Jewish Learning – Virtually! (In addition to the online offerings we will offer for TOS)

Additional Jewish resources for supporting ourselves and our families:


NEFESH workshops