Like all of you, the coronavirus pandemic is front and center in my mind. This is a time of vulnerability, yet also a time of gratitude for the ordinary. It’s a time when simple acts like hand-washing become reflective and holy.
Judaism has a lot to say about hand-washing. There’s a singular prayer commanding us to wash our hands. Ritualwell, an innovative website dedicated to interpreting Jewish ritual and liturgy for the 21st century, has presented the traditional prayer of al netalit yadayim—instructions for washing our hands—with an updated preamble.
As we wash our hands
Blessed is the Soul of the Universe,
Breathing us in and breathing us out.
May our breaths continue
And our health and the health of all
In this time of sickness and fear of sickness.
We take as much responsibility for this as we can
By observing the obligation to wash our hands
For as long as it takes to say this prayer.
Barukh atah adonai eloheinume lekhha-olam asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al netilat yadayim.
Blessed are you, our God, ruler of the universe, who sanctified us with God’s commandments and instructed us on washing hands.
I also found another beautiful and extended meditation on handwashing that said a lot about human interdependence. It was broadcast on the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA) podcast “Can We Talk?” featuring Dori Midnight, a community healer and spiritual leader. Here’s part of what she said about relearning to wash our hands:
We are humans relearning to wash our hands.
Washing our hands is an act of love
Washing our hands is an act of care
Washing our hands is an act that puts the hyper-vigilant body at ease
Washing our hands helps us return to ourselves by washing away what does not serve.
Wash your hands
like you are washing the only teacup left that your great-grandmother carried across the ocean, like you are washing the hair of a beloved who is dying, like you are washing the feet of Grace Lee Boggs, Beyonce, Jesus, your auntie, Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver—you get the picture.
Like this water is poured from a jug your best friend just carried for three miles from the spring they had to climb a mountain to reach.
Like water is a precious resource
made from time and miracle
Wash your hands and cough into your elbow, they say.
Rest more, stay home, drink water, have some soup, they say.
A couple of weeks before this pandemic, I went to visit my son, who was in Spain teaching for the year, and slipped on a cobblestone street. I landed hard on my right shoulder and knew immediately I did something very bad—I fractured my right shoulder in three places. I couldn’t move my arm, and I was nauseated. I had tripped in front of a café, and a considerate waiter helped me to my feet and brought me a chair. I was shaking uncontrollably when he handed me a glass of water.
On the pain scale, my pain was a certifiable 10, and that earned me a place at the head of the line in the emergency room. The doctor looked at my X-ray and told me, “You need to get back to your country as soon as possible.” She sent me on my way with a padded sling and a raft of painkillers. The next afternoon, I was on a plane back to Boston, but not before my son arranged for wheelchair assistance in the three airports I would be traversing.
Life is very different in a wheelchair. For me, it was the dependence on others that was alternately novel and scary. I would not have made it home without the acts of love and care Midnight calls up in the JWA podcast. My kind wheelchair attendants situated me in vans, and at one point in a catering truck with a hydraulic lift, which enabled me to enter a plane that had no jetway in place. On the flight home, my pain scale had different criteria. I was miserable from the pain yet heartened by the way the airline attendants put my hyper-vigilant body at ease.
When I boarded the flight from Madrid to Boston almost three weeks ago, it was a different world. The coronavirus was something that was happening elsewhere. People took some precautions. On the plane, the man across the aisle generously wiped down my tray table with his sanitizer; others wore masks. “Social distancing” had yet to enter the lexicon. I never imagined that something was coming none of us had lived through; something that would frighten us on the most granular level. In just a short time, the coronavirus has fully arrived as a disease to outwit. To succeed at this macabre game, washing hands is no longer an afterthought. It is a life-saving measure for us as much as it is for others. This simple fact makes our dependence on one another all the more crucial.
Two poems about the pandemic have comforted me. In her poem “A Prayer of Hope During This Pandemic,” Rabbi Naomi Levy asks God “to turn our panic into patience, and our fear into acts of kindness and support.” Lynn Ungar, a Unitarian Universalist minister, asks us to think of this time of quarantine as an extended Shabbat. In her poem “Pandemic” she versifies:
What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath—
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel.
Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world
different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
I have weeks to go until my shoulder heals. As I write this, my son is scheduled to board a flight tomorrow—the same one I took from Madrid a few weeks ago—and come home, where he will immediately self-isolate in our back bedroom for 14 days. I pray he doesn’t feel too isolated as we try to support him from the other side of the door. As Ungar continues in her poem:
And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
Promise this world your love—
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.