Today is April 6, 2020 -
“What is the overriding purpose or goal of religion?,” is a question that has challenged philosophers, sages, and theologians for centuries.
The current Coronavirus pandemic, with which our synagogue and local community, our nation, and the world are now struggling, has, I believe, provided me with the answer to this question.
The high morbidity and mortality associated with the virus, as well as the absence of a known vaccine or cure for the disease, are but 2 of the many reasons that Covid-19 has understandably engendered great fear and anxiety on the part of our local, national and international communities.
How do we humans typically respond, when we fear for the health and safety of our loved ones and ourselves? The instinct for survival causes us to think primarily, if not solely, about our own personal needs and well-being, often to the exclusion of others. This phenomenon serves to explain, why the shelves at so many grocery stores are empty, and why “stockpiling” has resulted in a shortage of hand sanitizer, masks, and gloves even for those needing them the most, like health care providers and others routinely coming into contact with the public.
The following midrash illustrates Judaism’s response to this primal human reaction, that response being—for us to care not only for ourselves, but to also reach out to others in the community, especially those whose needs may be greater than our own. As your Rabbi, I, along with the synagogue leadership, are thus committed to doing all we can to provide emotional and spiritual support to you at this challenging time.
Now for the story. A widower, who has just lost his only child, visits his rabbi, not only seeking solace and comfort, but hoping that she will be able to offer a special prayer or incantation to bring his child back to life. The rabbi instead tells him to “find a mezuzah from a home that has never known sorrow, and when you do, bring it back to me, and we will then use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.”
The man sets off at once in search of the magical mezuzah. He stops first at a splendid mansion. He knocks on the door, saying to the person, who answers, “You have a beautiful home. I am hoping that the mezuzah on the front door has protected you, and that this is a place that has never known sorrow.” To his disappointment, the owner replies that “You have certainly come to the wrong house. While my family has been blessed financially, we have had more than our share of personal loss and tragedy.”
The grieving father, feeling for the family, says to himself, “Who is better able to help these unfortunate people than I, who has had misfortune of my own?” He stays to comfort the family, before resuming his search for a magic mezuzah and a home that has never known sorrow. Yet, he finds, to his dismay, whatever home he visits, whether a castle or a simple cottage, that the family has had one tale after the next of sadness and misfortune.
At each of these homes, after hearing their stories, he would stay a period of time to comfort and help the family. Ultimately, he found himself so involved in worrying about and caring for others that he ceases his search for the magical mezuzah and instead returns home.
Upon visiting his rabbi, the first thing that she asks him is, “Did you bring me back the magical mezuzah?” The man responds, “no, I did not find it, but I no longer need it. Helping others has driven the sorrow out of my life.”
Hillel’s timeless and universal aphorism, “If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when,” makes clear that we achieve the most satisfaction and peace of mind, at times like this, when we integrate the primal need to care for our own and ourselves with a more selfless desire, taught by our Tradition, to also care for and be sensitive to the needs of others.
Sending prayers of good health, healing, and blessing to your loved ones and you!
Rabbi Howard Mandell