Shabbat Parashat Achrei Mot-Kedoshim 5780
Rabbi Aaron Brusso
I've had many excruciating conversations since this pandemic began. One member of our Bet Torah family has a sister who has been going through cancer treatment for a number of years. Her sister is pretty much at the end of effective treatment and lives in the city alone. She said to me "I can't visit her because her immune system is completely compromised. I don't want to risk bringing her the virus and me being the reason she gets even sicker. I am realizing that its very possible that I will never see my sister again."
Another member of our Bet Torah family is married to a physician who daily is exposed to the virus in the medical facility where they work. The spouse I spoke with is worried about their partner's health but also worried about what their partner might bring home with them one day to the rest of the family.
And this past week I spoke with a member of the BT family who runs a business with a number of employees. The business has been impacted by the way the quarantine has changed the revenue stream the employees rely on. This business owner explained that during the 2008 financial crisis he went for 6 months without a salary in order to keep all his employees on payroll. He got emotional as he talked about the responsibility he feels to them. He told me their names and how long they have been employed in his business.
Our Bet Torah community has been extraordinary in reaching out to the ill and isolated in our extended BT family. Our Shabbat meals program cooked by chef Rene served almost 40 meals delivered by 17 families. Fresh, hot meals delivered by Caring Committee volunteers who are given strict instructions on how to handle the no contact drop off. The ill, isolated and for the first time this week some health care worker families receiving meals from volunteers most of whom don't see the people they are delivering to.
And we have been in communication with the health care workers and professionals in our community to celebrate the amazing work they are doing. Like Drs. Karen Scott Ebert and Yafit Partouche at Northern Westchester hospital who helped deliver a baby from a Covid positive mother with great care so as not to transfer the virus from mother to baby. Their normal work now with an elevated level of difficulty. And we have also heard about their exhaustion, pride, fear, meaning, concern and determination.
And now I'm thinking about the business owner and the people for whom he is responsible. I've spoken about the communal sacrifice we are all participating in for the greater good. For the health and well being of certainly the most vulnerable and senior in our community but also for those who are not in those categories who have gotten seriously ill as well. The great collective gift we are all giving to humanity. Never in our lifetimes have we had the opportunity to contribute to such a global sacred cause.
And yet when it comes to financial sacrifice not all sacrifices are having the same impact on families. There are those whose income is reduced. Those whose income has stopped and they are living on savings. And those who live paycheck to paycheck with no idea when the next paycheck is coming.
We are taught in this morning's Torah portion "lo ta'amod al dam rei'echa- do not stand on the blood of your fellow." The rabbis interpret this as a positive duty to save the life of others. Jewish law requires us to act when doing so can prevent another person, even someone you don't know, a fellow human being from dying. If you see someone drowning and saving them will not endanger your life, you are required, not allowed but required to do so.
State and local governments restricting our movements, banning gatherings and mandating the close of businesses is an extreme measure that is counter cultural to the ethos of our rights based society. In America we are given a set of assurances of what we cannot be expected to do. We are protected from being forced to give up freedoms. American law generally does not force us to save someone's life. And so what is happening right now may be unfamiliar to us as Americans. But as Jews what we are doing is core to our value system.
And yet in this morning's Torah portion we also learn "lo talin peulat sachir itcha ad boker- the wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning." There is a recognition here that some people live off of the earnings they make every day and without them they would suffer greatly. And if we look at the Hebrew carefully it doesn't say "wages" it actually says "the work of the laborer" may not remain with you. In other words the money the person owes the laborer, once the labor is done. belongs to the laborer. And to keep it is literally to hold something that is no longer yours. Work for many is daily sustenance.
And here we have a conflict. We must do all we can to save lives. And we must do all we can to allow a laborer to receive his livelihood. What to do when life conflicts with livelihood?
The rabbis in the Talmud deal with these moral dilemmas all the time. Right and wrong are often not clear and certainly not without cost. When you have competing values you have to choose which one to prioritize in which set of circumstances, but once you do, the dilemma is not solved, it is only managed. And part of taking true responsibility for a situation is owning the values prioritization AND owning the cost of having made that choice. When you have a moral dilemma, satisfaction becomes a luxury.
And so we think about the ill, the isolated, the health care worker, their families, the essential employees serving food and making deliveries and we think about those whose livelihoods have changed significantly or completely stopped. We are living out one important Jewish value and we are sublimating another important Jewish value.
And we know this is impacting people in the Bet Torah community so I want to say clearly to those I've spoken with: I see you, I hear you, we are here for you. And to those who have not reached out to Bet Torah clergy we want to hear from you. Lives are being saved AND your sacrifice needs to be seen, honored and heard. It may be for a good cause but we also know there are people relying on you. If you haven't done so already I encourage you to reach out to us.
A sacred community is one that takes responsibility for all Jewish values, even in the moments where we turn the volume up on some over others. A sacred community is one that takes responsibility for each sacred human being within it.
May we in this unprecedented time continue to do everything we can to see each other. Amen.