Toward Shabbat: Vayak’hel Pekudei

On Tuesday, my family and I came out of 14 days of precautionary quarantine—a result of our children’s school being an early locus of COVID-19 cases. The quarantine brought out the best in us—snuggles, laughing, pillow fights, and dance parties. And, it brought out the worst in us—impatience, frustration, screaming. As more and more of us are required to stay home and limit our interaction with the outside world, we are finding ourselves challenged in new and profound ways—whether by severe isolation because we live alone, or by the tension that comes from being confined in small spaces with other people for hours on end.

What is the spiritual guidance for this moment of staying in place? There is an interesting rabbinic discussion that offers us some inspiration. It centers on how the Kohen Gadol (high priest) would prepare for Yom Kippur in the days that the Temple stood in Jerusalem: the Mishna teaches that for the seven days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) was required to leave his home and sequester himself in a special chamber inside the Temple, called a palhedrin. Presumably, this sequestration was a preventative measure, to protect the priest from injury, illness, or impurity so that he would be able to perform the rites and rituals of the holy day. But there is a spiritual message underneath the surface, which emerges from a debate about this quarantine between Rabbi Yehuda and the rest of the sages.

The Talmud (Tractate Yoma 10b) asks whether or not the palhedrin chamber must have a mezuzah affixed to its doorway. Rabbi Yehuda says no: because the priest is forced to live in the chamber for seven days, it is not a true residence and therefore does not require a mezuzah. But the rest of the rabbis say yes: despite the fact that the priest is forced to live there, the palhedrin is considered a true residence and therefore does require a mezuzah. 

My colleague Rabbi Benjamin Samuels offers a beautiful insight into this debate. He suggests that the rabbis understand the Kohen Gadol as being physically—but not spiritually—restricted by this quarantine. In other words, while he does not have freedom of movement, he does have freedom to choose how he behaves and how he speaks. Because he has the ability to fill those seven days with holiness and mitzvot (commandments), the rabbis require him to affix a mezuzah (the purpose of which is, in part, to remind us to fill our homes and our lives with holiness and mitzvot). Samuels writes:

“…the essence of freedom lies more in our ability to choose, than in our ability to move. And that moment of realization, that moment of mitzvah, marks the true beginning of our redemption.”

Over the past few days, as we have become increasingly restricted in our ability to move, so many BJ members have exercised their ability to choose—to choose mitzvot, to choose hesed (lovingkindness), to choose compassion, to choose love. Leaders of various BJ havurot (small groups) are continuing to convene their groups, transitioning to Zoom and other online platforms so that social connection and support can be maintained at this time of increasing isolation. Leaders of Connections, Aviv, BJ Teens, and Family Life and Learning are working closely with staff to create opportunities to connect for their constituencies. The Refugee and Immigration Committee teams are finding new ways to support refugee families via technology. Hevra Kadisha volunteers continue to comfort mourners through phone calls and Zoom shivas. Dozens of other BJ members have already stepped up to offer their skills and time in whatever way is needed. (You can, too! Offer or request support here.) And the BJ Board of Trustees, led by President Alan Mantel and First Vice President Suzanne Schecter, have been working in close partnership with the BJ staff to help steer our community through these new and strange waters. We are incredibly grateful for the enduring commitment and tireless efforts of these leaders.

I particularly want to highlight two efforts made in the past week. The first is the way we have turned inward, to care for the most vulnerable members of our community. Over 40 volunteers made nearly 150 phone calls to these members to check in and ask what support they need. This outreach will continue and expand to more members of our community, and we are so grateful to these volunteers and to the chairs of Bikkur Holim (Galit Lopatin Bordeaux and Les Nelson) and of Mi Sheberakh Callers (Nancy Greenblatt) for leading this effort. 

The second is the way we have turned outward, remembering that there are those in our city whose basic needs for food and shelter remain very real. In particular, the BJ/SPSA Shelter and the Judith Bernstein Lunch Program have had to make major adjustments in order to continue operations. Dozens of younger BJ members have stepped up to fill in for the regular volunteers who are mostly older and therefore unable to volunteer at this time. Our gratitude goes to shelter chairs Dava Schub, Liz Weiss, and Jim Melchiorre, and lunch program chairs Esta Rose and Robin Tunick, who have spent endless hours determining how we can keep these programs operating.

This Shabbat was meant to be Volunteer Recognition Shabbat, with a celebration at services tomorrow morning to honor the contributions of all our BJ volunteers. While we cannot be together in person tomorrow, we are humbled to lift up and honor the commitment of all those who dedicate themselves to building this community. This week has proven that even under the most difficult of circumstances, BJ members rise to the occasion, giving of themselves so selflessly.  

As we spend more time in our homes, let us look at the mezuzot on our doorways and be reminded: While we may not have the freedom to move during these difficult days, we all have the freedom to choose. And may we each find our own way to choose holiness and hesed and love.

With wishes for a Shabbat of rest and peace,
Rabbi Shuli Passow