Everyone is Essential

We enter into Shabbat this week with the knowledge that Governor Inslee has extended the stay at home order for Washington State until May 4. It was not unexpected, especially since the schools are officially closed until April 24. It seems safe to say that we can expect extensions of those dates as well.

But for now, we can continue to settle into our homes, limiting our excursions out. I have set up shop in my house, even leading services not from an empty sanctuary as I did for the first two weeks of quarantining, but from a room in my house decorated with lights and a tinsel Star of David that I borrowed from my son home from college.

Leading services from home is, technically, beyond the scope of the Governor’s order. Houses of worship are allowed to live stream services from their sanctuaries, so long as there are no more than 10 people (a minyan!) at a time and they are practicing social distancing of 6 feet.

But while it might be permitted, there is no reason to do so if we can avoid it. There is even a concept in Jewish law called lifnim meshurat hadin–within the letter of the law–meaning that even though you have a legal right to something, you do not need to exercise it. Even if we can lead services from our sanctuaries, there is no reason we should at a time when we are being told to limit leaving our homes.

One of the prevailing concepts that has come to define the Governor’s order is what jobs are considered “essential.” Certain businesses and occupations are considered “essential” and so therefore have permission to remain open or go to work. Houses of worship are not considered “essential” in the same way other businesses and services are.

But that is a technical term. For while we as a congregational community are told not to gather for worship and other programs and events, spiritual community is essential to our well-being during this crisis.

Indeed, in response to COVID-19, we are all essential. It’s just that we each live into our essentiality in different ways.

For some people, they demonstrate their essentiality by going out. And we especially give honor to those working on the front lines–health care workers, first responders, and others–and those whose work allows others to shelter at home–grocery workers, delivery drivers, and more. We pray for their safety and express our deep gratitude to them all.

For others, we demonstrate our essentiality by staying home. By staying home, we do our part to protect ourselves and protect others by limiting the spread of the virus. And this is one of the beautiful ironies of this response, by seemingly doing nothing we are in actuality doing a lot.

And we all prove our essentiality in other ways. While we can’t physically be in the same space as others, we can still demonstrate our connectedness by reaching out by different means. Phone calls, videoconferencing, emails, social media–there are many ways we can be in touch, share our concern, offer assistance, or simply maintain human contact.

For this what ultimately defines spiritual community. It’s not the ability to gather in a central location for worship. What defines spiritual community is the ability to meet human needs, support one another when we struggle, and show care and compassion.

There is a part of me that misses gathering in the synagogue, especially during services. But there is a part of me that is having fun with our remote and virtual services. While there is something that is lost by not being able to gather in person, there is something that is gained by being limited to virtual space. Services are more accessible for those who have a hard time travelling to the synagogue. With our cameras on we are invited into each others homes, and we can do things like light our candles all together. And people who are far away can join us with the press of a button.

As this virus passes, and we return to meeting together in person, there will be aspects of gathering virtually that we will retain. To what extent and at what times has yet to be determined. But we will, because the underlying value of human connectivity is always there, regardless of the medium it is expressed.

And that value, more than anything, is what is essential.

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