The joke that during our quarantine time no one remembers what day it is rings true for me. While I’m able to stay on top of Shabbat, other days and tasks flow together. I realized the other day that I haven’t written my “weekly post” for a few weeks!
In our Torah reading this week we are introduced to the Yovel, commonly translated as the Jubilee year. Just as we humans have the Shabbat, in which we are meant to take every seventh day as a day off–a day of reflection, gratitude, and not working at our occupations–the earth is also supposed to have a Shabbat in that every seventh year fields are supposed to go fallow to rest and replenish.
Then, we are to mark not only every seven-year period, but seven periods of seven years–49 years–and on the 50th year declare the Yovel. On that day debts are to be forgiven, land returned to original ownership, and indentured servants released.
By restoring and reordering society in this way, the Yovel compels us to reexamine our relationship with material goods and how we distribute wealth. It reminds us that we as humans share a fundamental equality that does not distinguish between rich and poor. It reminds us that our societal constructs are simply that–constructs–that can be broken down, changed, and reordered.
While the Yovel is intentional, following a schedule and calendar, I can’t help but feel that with the coronavirus we are getting a Yovel-like opportunity imposed upon us. The pandemic is stripping away our assumptions about how our society is meant to function, challenging institutions that perpetuate themselves even if they are not the most beneficial.
We are dealing with tremendous loss and grief as this pandemic ravages our communities. And while we live into and confront this time of difficulty, we can also anticipate and plan for a time when we move past this.
What that time looks like right now is not clear. We do know that we may not go back to the world as it once was. Indeed, we may not want to. For this pandemic is revealing for us ways in which we have fallen short as a society, and we would do well to examine them and attempt to remedy them. I don’t profess to be an expert in any of these fields, merely a spiritual observer, and these are things that I see that we must address in order to live fully into the teaching of our sacred texts–both the Yovel and the fundamental lesson that we are all created in the image of God, and none of us is more important than another:
The system of distributing health insurance is fundamentally flawed. There is something deeply problematic that in our system, people who are losing their jobs because of a pandemic are also are also at risk of losing their employer-sponsored health insurance. We already have a system where people avoid the care they need for fear of financial loss, and during a pandemic, access to health care is paramount. We need to think of different ways of delivering medical care that allows everyone to receive the care they need.
Racism runs so very deep. The statistics regarding racial disparities in response to the virus are telling us something we should already know: people of color are at a systematic disadvantage in this country. Overt racism exists, of course, we have seen that in how some characterize the virus. And in addition to that, there is the systemic racism that continually keeps communities of color at a disadvantage. Poor health outcomes at this time of pandemic are the result of economic disparities, food deserts, reduced access to health care, the geography of environmental threats, and more. These outcomes are the result of conditions that date from our country’s founding, and they are ones we must continue to acknowledge, wrestle with, and overcome.
We are capable of lifting up people and redistributing money. The stimulus payments and small business loans are showing us that we do have the capacity to shift large amounts of money to support those who are in need. What was lacking was the will. Government exists to support its citizens, and sometimes that means financially supporting them at a time of intense need. The response to the coronovirus is one extreme example. But there are other times in which we as a society need to think differently about when and how to support people at challenging times, and not just leave it to the “free market.”
We need housing first. There is a cruel irony in knowing that many people can not fulfill stay at home orders because they do not have a home. This has put an additional burden on an already vulnerable population. Yes, there are many issues that underlie homelessness in our local community and nationwide. And yet many of those can be addressed better with the foundation of stable housing. Again, we have the capacity to build shelters and affordable housing, we just need to think differently about how and who needs to benefit in order to muster the will to do so.
We can reduce our footprint. With the cutting back in travel, we are already seeing benefits to the environment. We can look to the sharp reduction in air travel and cruises for one, but even limiting car trips is having a positive effect. And we are proving to ourselves that it is possible to travel less as we conduct more business remotely. We are learning that even the short trip to the synagogue for a meeting is not necessary as many things can be conducted via video conference. We will need to weigh when we must travel to be in person, and when we don’t need to be.
We are learning who really is essential. I am continually humbled by the fact that I have the privilege to work completely from home. And I know too that is only possible because of others who are working in essential tasks. I think of those who work up and down the food delivery system from the farm workers to the meat processors to the delivery drivers to the store/restaurant employees. I also think of health care workers and nursing home aides. And there are so many others. We realize more clearly who does the work of this country to make things function, and it becomes incumbent upon us to recognize them, not just with kudos and applause, but with benefits and support. And because many in this category are immigrants, both documented and undocumented, we need to be sure to reexamine policies and rules so that everyone is cared for.
A different way of voting is possible. It was terrifying to watch the images of people lining up to vote in Presidential primaries during a pandemic, forced to congregate, wait on long lines, and put themselves and others at risk to fulfill the essential task of democracy. We in Washington State already know that another way of voting is possible that even in times without a pandemic provides a more equitable and safe way of voting. We will need to examine voting by mail nationwide.
There are more, and I’m sure you can add your own observations. I also think of the prison populations, and how the inability to social distance puts them at risk. While there will always be people we as a society will determine need to be incarcerated, that does not mean we should not provide for their basic human safety and health. All the moreso for those asylum seekers being held in detention, who are not criminals, but seeking legal entry to the United States.
We are currently living in a time of great challenge and great hope. As we learn this week from our reading in Leviticus, just as humans are meant to “reset” every seventh day, and fields are meant to “reset” every seventh year, our society is meant to “reset” every 50 years. And we can understand this 50-year cycle not as a specific period of time, but a way of saying “once in a lifetime.”
This is indeed a “once in a lifetime” event. The question now is, will we use this time in quarantine to reexamine, reorder, and reset?