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Grace In The Time Of Covid

In mid August we hosted a barbecue in our backyard for my wife’s birthday. It was an ordinary pandemic evening – just a handful of friends gathered around our fire pit – we were outside, mostly distanced, mostly following the strict rules of this strange new world. It was a moment of joy during the monotony of social isolation.

A week later we received a phone call that brought our small world to a pause – someone who attended that evening tested positive for Covid-19. And though this person was asymptomatic, my wife and I both had splitting headaches and a sore throat. We were convinced we had contracted the virus.

We flew into a frenzy, we found it difficult to secure a quick testing appointment, and we called every person we had contact with that evening and throughout the week.

Worse than the fear that we might become gravely ill was the fear that we had unwittingly brought danger to the people we love. The friends who trusted us, our children’s wonderful nanny and her high risk husband, our one family toddler pod of playmates.

I went over that night in my mind dozens of times – how many feet away were we? Are the rules wrong? We were wrong to ever think it’s ok to spend time with someone outside our family?

On each call I sobbed and profusely apologized. I was horrified and terrified that we could have transmitted this terrible illness.

What I heard on the other end of those telephone calls shocked me –

“It’s going to be ok,” they said.

We trust you.

You did your best to follow every guideline.

If we are sick, this is a pandemic, this is what happens.

I forgive you.

I forgive you.

I love you, I forgive you.

Frankly, I thought my beloved friends were either lying or being far too kind.

Are you mad at me? You must be so mad at me.

“No”, they each repeated. “I love you. I trust you. I forgive you.”

I thought of the people who contracted and spread Covid before they knew how to be careful. I thought of those who unwittingly spread Covid to elderly or high risk relatives. I thought of the essential workers who got sick, or didn’t, but worried everyday they would bring the illness home.

As I perseverated on thoughts of shame and self blame, I imagined how many were feeling these same intense feelings of despair. I wondered if similar phone calls were met with anger and blame. I wondered if similar phone calls were also met with such generous, enormous love and compassion.

The gift I received from my loved ones that day was the gift of grace.

Grace, the extension of favor, kindness, trust and generosity beyond measure or expectation. A grace that cut through my terror, and stunned me with its brilliance and blessing.

Jews are usually not fond of discussing grace, instead associating the phenomenon with our Christian neighbors. But Grace is deeply rooted in Jewish tradition.

In the second of our tripartite Priestly blessing we say – Ya’eir Adonai panev Eilecha, v’chuneka. May God’s face shine on you and be gracious to you.

When Moses approaches God after the fiasco with the golden calf, he says: Adonai, Adonai, El rachum v’chanun, – Adonai, compassionate and gracious God –

He begs God to extend grace, to forgive enormous sin.

And when Noah is singled out as the only righteous person in his generation, he was said to have found Chen, grace in the eyes of God.

The rabbis (1) call this groundless favor – Noah was a righteous person, but he did not know God, had done nothing to deserve special treatment.

The Torah Temimah teaches that Noah did not merit saving, but this grace reflects God’s deepest kindness, a most loving action amidst chaos and destruction.

The Talmud (2) takes this one step further – When Abba Shaul interprets the Song of the Sea (3), he creatively translates the word “Ve’anveihu,” “I praise God,” as “Ani Vahu,” “me and God,” commenting that this is the commandment to emulate God – “Just as God is full of grace and compassion, so too should you be full of grace.”

When my friends extended me grace, forgiving me without reason, they were emulating the Divine.

But were they the exception to the rule? Such grace is not easy to maintain during a pandemic that requires distance but encourages some of the worst human traits – fear, judgment, distrust.

We are living in what the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer called the Porchupine’s paradox (4) – On a cold winter day, the porcupines need to huddle together to prevent themselves from freezing to death. However, as they huddle together they feel the painful effect of their neighbor’s quills and draw back. Tossed between two evils, the porcupines struggle to find a proper distance where they can tolerate the other, and still benefit from the shared warmth.

We are the porcupine – we need each other desperately, but there is real danger in proximity. It is painful to be distant, it is painful to be apart. And the institutions we rely upon to teach us how to be safe are failing us. Every decision comes with considerable risk.

I worry that this pandemic will shape the personalities and morality of a generation.

Many who suffered through the Great Depression or the hardships of the second World War became excessively frugal – rinsing and reusing plastic bags, hiding gold bars under the bed, avoiding any frivolous spending.

I worry that my children’s generation will inherit a frugality of love – a fear of getting close to strangers, a reluctance to trust or engage in new relationships.

Even in these early months of the pandemic we feel a pull towards assuming all people in certain places are unsafe, we stereotype college students and teenagers as ubiquitously irresponsible and untrustworthy, we see people on the street and first notice who is and who is not wearing a mask. I have committed each of these sins of hatred.

I witness small children who cower when they see the mail carrier, families who fight because they disagree on how to manage risk,, and the shaming of individuals and families who make certain choices around school or socialization.

Many of these impulses are justified in a world where being cautious and safe is both personally necessary and for the greater good.

But I worry that as a human community we risk creating norms and behaviors that may extend far beyond our current crisis.

The truth is, our culture is historically set up to fall into traps of fear and loneliness.

The history of the last few hundred years demonstrates the intellectual, cultural, spiritual move away from communalism, the belief that we are responsible for one another, towards individualism, the centering of private concerns and needs.

When the French diplomat Alexis de Tocqueville took an observational tour of the United States in the early 1830s, he noticed a culture rooted in what he called Individualism, “a feeling which disposes each citizen to isolate himself from the mass of his fellows so that… he willingly leaves society at large to itself.”

Distinguished from egoism – a universal human vice – he worried that such a cultural outlook would be the undoing of democracy. He was prophetic.

Now, a hundred and ninety years in the future, we see the results –

In 2018, the health insurance company Cigna (5) published a survey that revealed “loneliness at epidemic levels in America.” The study showed that 46% of Americans feel alone. 47% feel left out. 54% feel that no one knows them well.

In his new book “Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks we need a true reckoning with our society’s moral code. We overemphasize the “I” and lose the “We,” We risk trading our pluralistic society for warring identity groups, our collective responsibility for competitive victimhood. (6)

Sacks rejects moral rationalists like Immanuel Kant, who believe that all people must intuit and articulate a unified moral code.

Like any good rabbi, he knows that getting any large group to agree on a single set of principles is utopian, no matter how perfect the system.

Sacks also rejects the moral relativism of some Existentialists and post modernists, who advocate that morality is subjective  – good is what is good for me— He calls this the “Thin morality of liberal individualism, where the only constraints on behavior are fairness and avoidance of harm.”

Instead, the traditional rabbi teaches the power of covenant. Covenant, the “thick morality of loyalty, reverence and respect” is possible when we find ourselves beholden to relationships of mutual responsibility. When we foster bonds that are strong enough to withstand disagreement and pluralism, bonds that are strengthened through acts of grace and compassion.

We are in an incredibly complex global pandemic, if we allow our fear and judgment to rule us, we will allow Covid-19 to stick around long past a vaccine. But if we take this as an opportunity to draw closer to one another, to reinforce covenant and establish a morality of grace – we have the opportunity to correct a centuries old societal wrong.

My family did not have Covid-19. I had an unfortunately timed sinus infection – evidently those are still a thing. And every doctor and public health official I spoke with thought I was being a tad over the top. One even laughed and said, “you know you don’t get Covid from looking at an infected person, right?”

The lesson was not to become more fearful, more isolated, though that was my instinct. The deepest lesson was found in the love extended by my sweet, compassionate friends.

But their grace wasn’t truly unearned – we have personal relationships built on trust, not a covenantal relationship between strangers. It is much harder to overcome our fear and extend grace to those outside our social borders.

Yom Kippur, our holiest day, is an invitation to do this important, internal work. Today is a day steeped in the particularistic theology of our people, but the message of the day is universal – ask forgiveness, learn to forgive – know that making mistakes is stitched into the fabric of our humanity, but so is our capacity for change and grace. We face our fears, we remember our most important values so that we can live gracious, compassionate lives.

There are so many models – the elementary student who started a letter writing campaign to isolated congregants, the activists and organizers who work tirelessly on issues of justice and compassion, the people who make phone calls to community members and teach the technophobic how to use zoom, people who say hello on the street, who leave food on doorsteps, who day by day challenge the atmosphere of division and hatred by extending love and support. These are the people who conquer their own fear and loneliness for the sake of a kinder world.

When our children recall this difficult time, may they forget the fear, and remember the zoom calls where we yearned for connection and stayed true to our deepest values. May they remember how we loved one another.

May this year be a year of grace beyond reason, compassion beyond measure. May this be a better year.

(1) See the commentator S’forno on Gnesis 6:8, or Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein’s commentary in the Torah Temimah on the same verse.

(2)  Shabbat 133b

(3) Exodus 15:2

(4) See: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-and-philosophy/202003/the-hedgehog-s-dilemma

(5) See: https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-release/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america

(6)  Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sack, Morality: Restoring the Common Good in Divided Times,” p. I.