July 9, 2020


7.10.2020 Weekly Torah Portion

When the pandemic is over, then we’ll live life.  “When we’re all back at 8831…”  “When we have childcare…”  “When, when, when…”  Our waiting creates the illusion that life in the time of COVID-19 is not living, that we are waiting for life to resume and pick up where we left off – if not the same, then something close to it.  The waiting keeps us stagnant.  We start to feel stuck.  And we lose sight of one of the most important learnings of both this deadly virus and this movement for black lives: living is so very precious.

The question then is not when will I start living again.  The question is: how will I live now?  Not according to life as I want it to be, but according to life as it is?

Yes, it is scary.  It’s overwhelming.  Inhale.  Exhale.  Repeat.  Clear and sober mind.  This is life – as it is.  We can’t put off living until the pandemic is over.  Rabbi Heschel teaches:

It is a mistake to assume that significant being is achieved unwittingly, to let hours go on in order to arrive at the goals of living.  Life is a battle for meaning which may be lost or won, totally or partially.  What is at stake may be gambled away. (Who is Man? p. 95)

What’s at stake is the preciousness of our lives.  In addiction, we gamble away that preciousness for the next high, the next drink, the next thrill.  In recovery, we cling to it.  The preciousness of our lives and the lives of others guides us to take the next right action, the next dignified action.  But between addiction and recovery, there’s sobriety.  And in sobriety – when we’re dry but not working a program – we get stuck.  We begin to believe we can just wait things out until they get better without doing anything to make them better.

It’s tempting to wait and be silent and see how things will play out, especially for those of us who default to despair and embrace victimhood as an identity.  By waiting I can absolve myself of responsibility.  I can choose not to seek out childcare and then continue to say, “Sorry, I can’t show up for you right now because I’m with my daughter.”  Waiting means I’m in sobriety, but not in recovery.  Recovery means I’m taking responsibility for my own living – in reality as it is – by asking: how will I live now?  And then acting on the answers.

At times, the answer is clear because it is morally righteous.  In this week’s parashah, Pinhas, the Daughters of Zelophehad are credited with a profound vision about how to live:

They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and they said, “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not one of the faction, Korah’s faction, which banded together against the Lord, but died for his own sin; and he has left no sons.  Why should our father’s name be lost because he had no sons?” (Numbers 27:2-4)

The world is not as we want it.  Our father is dead, and we have no brothers.  We are unprotected by the laws of inheritance which include only men.  The Daughters (named earlier in the Torah as Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah) acknowledge that life is not as they want it, and by acknowledging that truth, they asked themselves: How will we live?  They answered by taking responsibility for their well-being and standing with dignity before the whole (male) assembly.  And they do so with a moral righteousness to which God responds: “The plea of Zelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them” (Numbers 27:7). The next right action, however scary or overwhelming, was clear to the Daughters.

And there are times when the next right action is clear during COVID-19.  Ahem, wear a mask!  Socially distance as much as possible!  These are clear, indicated actions.

But there are situations during these unprecedented times in which the next right action is not as clear.  Do I send my daughter back to school?  Does that put teachers at unnecessary risk?  Do I lift my mask to say hello to a scared child?  When there’s so much unknown, the next right action is not so clearly indicated.

When the next right action isn’t clear, when right and wrong won’t be obvious until the pandemic is a chapter in a history book, we can fall into what Heschel calls a “fear of living.”  That fear would keep us stuck, keep us isolated not only in body but in spirit – it would keep us clean, but not recovering.

To live in recovery, to live despite our fear, we must face our confusion the way Moses faces his.  When he is uncertain and confused – and perhaps even fearful of the Daughters’ question – he doesn’t pretend he knows the answer, and he doesn’t ignore them.  Moses recognizes his limitations, and he asks God for help (Numbers 27:5).

In our own confusion and uncertainty, we are tempted to stay stuck, to indulge in waiting, and waiting, and waiting.  But now that the COVID-19 reality is settling into another wave of diagnoses and hospitalizations, it’s time to take responsibility even for the decisions that are not so clear, and may never be clear.  We can take responsibility, as Moses does, by asking for help: God’s help, epidemiologists’ help, science reporters’ help, friends’ help and family’s help.  We don’t have certainty right now.  But we do have help.  Let that help lead you to the best decision that keeps you, your family, and your community, alive and well.

We have just this one life.  And those of us in recovery have fought too hard for it to just wait for life to be what we want it to be.  We can’t wait for life to happen to us.  We can’t put off life until – God willing – we have an effective and accessible vaccine.  That is sobriety.  To live in recovery means to live the life that I am alive to live.  It means taking the next right action, and asking for help when the next right action isn’t clear.

This is significant living in uncertain times.

How will you live?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Kerry