Just One Shabbat in quarantine during the coronavirus

I have my own feelings.

FEEL COMFORTABLE taking a seat at the Israeli Shabbat table, on your terms. (photo credit: FLICKR)
FEEL COMFORTABLE taking a seat at the Israeli Shabbat table, on your terms.
(photo credit: FLICKR)
Back when I was a young, idealistic rabbi in Dallas, I decided to launch a program called Just One Shabbat (actually, it was “Just One Shabbos,” but you get the picture). I had received a call encouraging me to participate in a national event whereby every synagogue in the community would hold a congregational Friday night dinner. But it seemed to me that a much better idea would be to celebrate the entire Shabbat with all the Jewish families in the city.
And so I reached out to all observant families, asking each one to host a nonobservant family in its home for one specific Shabbat. If it didn’t have a family in mind, I would find it one. Twenty-five hours of no phones, no computers, no cars; just food, prayer, song, food, elevated conversation and more food. They said it couldn’t be done, but guess what? We did it! The synagogues participated, and we all came together Saturday night to discuss our impressions. It was an eye-opener; not only for those who had never experienced a complete Shabbat, but also for the observant families who had never before really connected to their (not yet) observant neighbors.
The proof in the pudding came when we held the program again the following year; several of the original guest families had now become hosts! Many of the participants are observant until today, and everyone involved gained a greater appreciation for this special day. In fact, that local event led to an international Just One Shabbat movement in America.
I was motivated to conduct this program by the Talmudic statement (Jer. Talmud Ta’anit 1:1) that if every Jew kept the Shabbat at the same time, even once – some opinions say twice – the Messiah would immediately appear.
What I tried to do was the small contribution of one rabbi. I never imagined that many years later, God Himself would create the momentous opportunity for a truly worldwide happening. That happening was this past Shabbat, and this coming Shabbat, and perhaps many more Shabbatot to come.
All of us are now confined to barracks with no guests, no sports events or movie theaters or cafes to distract us – even, essentially, no synagogues, either (I’ve waited a lifetime to be ordered by the rabbis not to get up early and go to minyan!). Shabbat is that precious opportunity to turn off the endless videos and emails and WhatsApps that have barraged us from morning to night and look inward. Just families, couples or even single individuals, alone with God. What a cosmic moment, amid unparalleled stillness, to contemplate our fate and our faith, to confront our mortality and to reach out to the Infinite.
Praying alone – especially for those committed to daily public prayer – can be remarkably, refreshingly vibrant and impactful. Studying with one’s spouse can be exciting and invigorating, as we learn and teach together. And silence can create the sweetest songs.
LIKE ALL extraordinary events, corona is both a crisis and a challenge.
On the one hand, it can bring out our flaws and our failings. We have cringed watching those who foolishly refuse to heed the advice of the health professionals regarding social distancing, as halachicly required, and so endanger the entire population.
But we have marveled at the extraordinary character of our people that is being revealed, exemplified by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s firm, forthright messages to the nation, the government’s heroic rescue of stranded Israeli backpackers and countless acts of charity and hessed practiced by caring citizens, most from inside their homes. And, of course, we cheer and bow before the daily self-sacrifice of our heroic medical personnel.
The famous anecdote tells of the announcement that a massive tidal wave will engulf the entire world in just three days. Some decide to use that time to gather with their loved ones; others say they will indulge their wildest pleasures. Jewish leaders, however, announce to their people, “We have exactly 72 hours to learn how to live underwater!”
Using the best of Jewish ingenuity and Israeli technology, we have created innumerable classes on Zoom or Google, facilitated delivery of food and essential goods to the doorstep, and found creative ways to heighten our morale and dispel our depression.
IT SEEMS that everyone has his or her own take on corona. Some see it as a warning not to overestimate our own self-importance, as even a microscopic germ is more powerful than us. Others interpret this as a final cataclysm, the Gog and Magog said to usher in the end of days. Some say it is a Divine punishment for our enemies past and present, from Spain to Iran. Some call it “beautiful,” a blessing from God even, while many see it as an occasion for teshuva, as we bemoan the great toll in lives and livelihoods this event has engendered.
I have my own feelings.
Quite serendipitously, we read this past Shabbat about the very first quarantine in Jewish history. When the plague of the firstborn strikes Egypt, the Israelites are told to take the blood of the Paschal Lamb and smear it on their doorposts, so that the “plague of destruction” will pass over them. Then they are warned, “You shall not leave the entrance of your home”; as a result, God will not permit “the destroyer” to smite them.
One can only imagine the state of the Hebrews that night. They hear the screams of the afflicted, they see the mayhem and mourning taking place outside their windows. But inside, they are safe, surrounded by God’s protection, and their families remain intact.
In a very real sense, this is the power and purpose of Shabbat. Somehow, it has insulated us throughout the generations; it turns the most modest home into a fortress of spirituality. Without exaggeration, it may very well be the single greatest reason that we survive as a people. Yes, we are industrious and well-read and courageous and compassionate, but perhaps the strongest guardian that shields us from the insidious ideologies that lurk outside, from the countercultures that would upend and undermine us, is Shabbat. As the pundits say, “seven days without Shabbat make one weak.”
If there is anything that we all can agree is a positive effect of this pandemic, it is the hope that, finally, our entire global nation can come together as one under the umbrella of Just One Shabbat.
That, we pray, should bring God’s blessing upon us and upon the world, to emerge safely from this crisis and lead even more meaningful lives.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. jocmtv@netvision.net.il