I had a good cry last week. I guess you might say that I hit a wall: the wall of frustration, anxiety, and yearning for things to just be “normal.” It felt good to sob openly. My wife Judy, God bless her, held me tight and reassured me.
It’s been nine weeks of staying mostly at home; nine weeks of uncertainty, of loneliness, of a whole range of unusual emotions. Nine weeks of looking at the same walls. Nine weeks of despairing for the world – for people suffering from and dying from the virus, for people suffering from the side effect of economic implosion – joblessness, product shortages and in some cases higher prices, loan applications and fear of a looming economic depression.
I am sorry to report that it’s going to get worse. Now we are in a phase of “should we or shouldn’t we?” And there is already a diverse, discordant chorus of voices on all sides. There will be much disagreement, and collective agonizing about the activities of the near future. Can we open? What can we open? Can we see our friends again? Will I have to wear a mask forever? There will be much speculation and analysis of infection rates, comparing places that have reopened to those that have not. And, of course, the hand-wringing will go on about testing – where are all those tests that should be widely available?
Add to all this that around the world, we may in fact be facing a mental illness crisis. The uncertainty and isolation and poverty caused by this pandemic are causing increased rates of depression and anxiety, domestic violence and a whole range of other effects, according to Devora Kestel, the director of the World Health Organization’s mental health department.
All of this is particularly challenging for Americans, because we are, as you know, the Land of Liberty, a beacon of freedom to the world. Our conception of freedom, alien in many places in the world, has made it more difficult for us to limit our behaviors in order to stop the disease. As a nation, we clearly do not like being told what to do, particularly by our government.
A year and a half ago, I traveled with a bunch of members of Beth Shalom to Israel. We stayed in Jerusalem at a hotel across the street from “Gan HaPa’amon,” Liberty Bell Park, which contains at its center a replica of, you guessed it, the Liberty Bell. Strangely enough, when I was living in Jerusalem 20 years ago, I walked past this park and even through it many times, but never bothered to check out its namesake. One evening, our Beth Shalom group paid the bell a visit.
And there it was, a little smaller than the original, embossed with the line from up front in Parashat Behar, which we read this morning, Vayiqra / Leviticus 25:10: Uqratem deror ba-aretz, lekhol yosheveha. Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof. (That translation is the King James Version; the Jews read it a little differently. The New JPS translation is “You shall proclaim release throughout the land for all its inhabitants.” It is a reference not to personal freedom per se, but freedom from the economic bondage of indebtedness that occurred in the yovel, the jubilee year, every 50 years, in which all debts were forgiven and land that had been sold to others due to economic hardship reverted to its original owner.)
The verse was appropriated by the designers of the Liberty Bell in 1752, and some time later the quote from Vayiqra came to symbolize the spirit of this new nation, and, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Now, we the Jews know a few things about freedom and bondage. It is of course no coincidence that the Torah dedicates a fair amount of ink to the idea of freedom from slavery: the entirety of the Exodus story, of course, but also providing the freedom from work that is Shabbat, and setting limitations on Israelite ownership of slaves (not that we permit or endorse that today, of course), and even providing not only a Shabbat to people but to animals and agricultural land as well.
But in the Exodus tale, Moshe’s call to arms is not actually freedom in the American sense. It is, rather, freedom from serving a human, God-like character, that is, the Egyptian Pharaoh, in favor of serving the one, true God. As you may have heard me point out before, the slogan that Moshe recites in front of Pharaoh is not, “Let My people go,” but rather, “Let My people go so that they can worship Me.” The journey of the Exodus is not, therefore from slavery to freedom, from avdut to herut, as our liturgy puts it, but from avdut to avdut: from slavery to Pharaoh (think: avadim hayyinu lefar’oh bemitzrayim / we were slaves in Egypt to Pharaoh, from the Pesah haggadah) to avodat Hashem, the service of God. It’s an exchange of one type of service for another, much better one.
What is freedom, really? Is it blanket permission to do whatever you want with no concern for the consequences? Clearly, no. On the contrary, freedom must have a structure. My “unalienable rights” do not permit me to infringe on yours. Freedom requires responsibility; it requires a legal framework that sets limits on behavior. Freedom from slavery for our ancestors was immediately shaped, 50 days after the departure from Egypt, with Torah.
What is the period of the sefirat ha’omer, connecting Pesah and Shavuot, if not a reminder that freedom requires a code that protects and strikes the balance between the personal and the common good? Without Torah, without a constitution, we have chaos.
You might by now have detected where I might be headed. (I detest being predictable.)
We are living in a time when chaos threatens the structure that freedom requires. We are living in a time when people believe anything they read on the Internet, particularly if it reflects their worldview. And, given the very real hazard of infection and the fact that COVID-19 actually kills people, chaos right now can actually kill. That is not freedom.
I know that we are balancing health and economic welfare. On the one hand, preventing the spread of the new coronavirus is essential to protecting lives. We have already lost nearly 90,000 Americans to the disease; over 300,000 people worldwide. On the other hand, the economic devastation that has been wrought in trying to stop the spread of the virus is absolutely unfathomable. Over 36 million people have applied for unemployment since the middle of March.
We are now caught in a truly mind-bending conundrum, the most challenging political question of our time: when can we open for business again?
Let’s take it as a given that we are not going to have a safe, reliable vaccine for COVID-19 for at least a year, and even that is a remarkably optimistic figure. Let’s also assume that we will not have an effective “herd immunity” for many more months. Particularly here in Pittsburgh, where (thank God) we have had a relatively low infection rate, since we have been pretty good here at preventing the spread of the virus. Thank God. But of course, that means that the vast majority of us have not been exposed, and are therefore susceptible.
If we reopen businesses and camps and schools and yes, synagogues, will we be able to rely on people’s ability to actually keep their distance from one another? Will we be able to count on people wearing masks in public? Will singing together in public, even at reasonable distances, be at all safe? Will people who work with or are otherwise in proximity to older people and others with compromising conditions manage to keep themselves separate from others who are exposed?
And if we do reopen some things, what is the smart way to do it? Even in countries where widespread testing and contact tracing have been implemented successfully (as far as I can tell, we have not done either here on a suitable scale), there are still pockets of reinfection. Consider the episode two weeks ago in South Korea, which had managed to contain the virus early with lots of testing, and then one infected person went out to night clubs in Seoul, and authorities had to track down 7,200 exposed individuals in the following days.
To make matters even more anxious, I am concerned that, to help stem the rising tide of suffering caused by job loss, governments will willfully disguise the numbers, undercounting infections or deaths, to justify their reopening. Russia is reporting over a quarter of a million confirmed cases, second in the world after the US, but less than 3,000 deaths from the virus. Can anybody seriously believe that they are accurately reporting the death toll? We know from statistics that our own is undercounted by a significant fraction already, because people died and laid to rest before being tested.
We love our freedom, and we particularly desire it right now, after two months of enforced isolation. So you can see why I am a little worried. I am concerned that the data will be fudged. I am concerned that we will lose sight of the disenfranchised in a rush to satisfy our own wants. I am concerned that your liberty will tread on mine.
Rambam (aka Maimonides, 1135-1204 Spain-Egypt) teaches us about concentric circles of charitable responsibility. When giving tzedakah, we are responsible first for those closest to us: our family, then our neighbors, then the residents of the same city, and so forth. While we must clearly be concerned with ourselves and the people closest to us, we must also be concerned about those who might be a little further away, and yet in danger. Being negligent at this time will certainly be deadly; and I am fairly certain that Dr. Rambam would not be pleased.
We cannot merely proclaim liberty; we cannot simply open our workplaces and schools and camps without any real planning for potential consequences; we cannot fantasize about some alternate reality in which the virus just stops itself. Just as our ancestors needed Torah, so too do we need reasonable measures that will keep the lives of all members of our society, particularly the most vulnerable, safe and holy. Let’s please make sure that we do that.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/16/2020.)