For someone in my field of geriatric chaplaincy, this difficult moment of social distancing is fraught with a painful irony. A significant portion of my job involves reducing the social isolation of the older people in my communities by engaging them not only with one another but also with the general public, to foster face-to-face relationships between residents and younger people in the context of shared meals, religious services and learning opportunities.
Now, of course, we are encouraging people to stay apart, to remain isolated in their apartments. My institution in Boston, Hebrew SeniorLife, like most other senior housing and care facilities, has closed its doors to visitors and volunteers, including family members of patients and residents. This guidance cuts so squarely against the grain of our usual instincts, but it also can represent the difference between life and death.
Death now seems so prevalent, so present in our lives, lurking ever more palpably in the spaces I inhabit, just as the season turns us toward life, toward the rebirth of spring and the joy of Passover. The fear is real, and the prospect of thousands of deaths resonates, as many commentators have suggested, with the plagues in the land of Egypt during the Exodus. Somehow, we seem to be playing the role of the Egyptians this year in addition to our usual role as Israelites. The verse, “…there was a loud cry in Egypt, for there was no house where there was not a corpse” (Exodus 20:30), carries particular force in a community struggling with this pandemic.
On this Shabbat HaGadol (the Shabbat before Passover), we will read Parashat Tzav, which includes the procedure for the Todah (thanksgiving or acknowledgement) offering, a particular form of Zevah Sh’lamim (offering of well-being or of peace). This Todah offering is voluntary rather than obligatory, and like the Pesach offering (but unlike all other sacrifices), it needs to be eaten immediately; no leftovers can remain until the next day (see Leviticus 7:11-15; cf Leviticus 22:29-30).
According to the Talmud, Rav Yehuda said that there are four categories of people who need to offer Todah: seafarers who have made land, travelers in the wilderness who have reached their destinations, people who have recovered from illness and prisoners released from captivity (b. Berakhot 54b). In this Talmudic context, we learn that in addition to an offering, such a person must also recite birkat gomel—the blessing that expresses our gratitude for God’s deliverance—before a minyan, as it says: “Let them exalt God before the congregation of the people” (Psalm 107:32). Today, people bench gomel (the Yiddish expression is more common than the Hebrew) in the context of an aliyah to the Torah.
These days, however, we as a society find ourselves deep in the wilderness; many are sick; even more are captives of a sort, isolated in their homes. The irony of celebrating Passover in a season of death is compounded by the recognition that for so many of us, there is apparently no cause for a Todah offering—as I write, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker has extended the closure of non-essential businesses until the beginning of May and the death toll keeps rising. There is no end in sight quite yet.
But even amid this darkness, two details of the Todah stand out. First, it must be eaten and enjoyed on the day that it is offered. In his comment to Leviticus 7:15, Haamek Davar says the reason is that the Todah should be celebrated with a single party with a lot of people—to make sure that the person making the offering has an ample audience to hear their story of God’s saving power. We can extrapolate from this explanation that the rule on Passover is similar: We do not leave any leftovers to make sure we invite as many people as we can accommodate: “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” says the Haggadah.
Second, it is a voluntary rather than an obligatory offering, and in pointing that out in his comment on Leviticus 22:29, Haamek Davar continues by saying that, “A person can bring [a Todah] any day.” It’s not limited to a holiday, so in theory one could bring it every day. Indeed, according to the Chidushei haRim (as cited in Etz Hayim), each day brings its own miracle, so we should celebrate each day’s miracles on the day they happen.
Amidst the darkness of this plague shine the myriad daily miracles contained in the actions of my colleagues here at Hebrew SeniorLife and of other essential workers across the country and the world. Hebrew SeniorLife’s director of culinary and nutrition glowed with pride as he spoke about his team stepping up in this crisis: “They want to be here; they want to support our patients.”
In response to the first deaths from COVID-19 at one of our facilities, the Jack Satter House in the hard-hit town of Revere, Mass., employees from across the organization have teamed up to make a daily phone call to every resident, all in quarantine, to check to see if they have begun to exhibit symptoms and to make sure they have everything they need.
As a Russian speaker, I was asked to call the handful of residents at Satter from the former Soviet Union. One of these people is on a very limited diet and thus couldn’t eat the limited selection of groceries currently available for delivery. When I alerted the team to this need, the chef at Satter arranged to special order and deliver appropriate products, including walnuts and sweet potatoes because, as he wrote in an email to me, “She prefers them.” When I spoke to the resident yesterday, her relief was as palpable through the phone as her distress was a few days before: “Ya tak blagodarna,” she kept repeating. “I am so grateful.”
Stories like this abound, and we must recount them and celebrate them even as we mourn our dead and continue to care for the living. Although it’s much too early to bench gomel (to give thanks for having survived a crisis), there is already so much for which we need to offer our gratitude.
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