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Toward Shabbat: Shemini

April 17, 2020

Our neighborhood has been unusually quiet these days. With significantly fewer cars and people on the streets, the sirens—now more frequent—sound more piercing than ever. Once considered a terrible annoyance, they have become a stark reminder of the gravity of the hour with so many lives at stake. Each siren awakens heartbreak and compassion.

The relative quiet in the streets is broken at 7 o’clock each evening when thousands of windows open as neighbors clap, cheer, and make joyful noises in gratitude and support of all essential workers who serve during the pandemic, especially healthcare workers on the frontlines who put their lives at risk. It is an incredibly moving tribute, each evening. And it is deeply humbling.

Everyone is aware of the horror that healthcare workers have been facing in our city: the overcrowded ICUs, the shortage of ventilators, the lack of adequate protective gear. The risk, the fear, the exhaustion, the anguish. The impossible moral choices. Witnessing so much illness, so much death all at once. Updating their patients’ relatives on the phone because the young along with the old face death alone, no visitors are allowed. This and much more we have heard and read, but those of us lucky enough not to have experienced it, neither as patient nor as healthcare provider, cannot fully grasp it.

Many in our BJ community have been on the frontlines against the coronavirus. On behalf of all of us, I express to them and to those who serve alongside them, what we are feeling and holding in our hearts: immense admiration and gratitude for their sacrifice.

To save human life is to do God’s work. You—doctors, nurses, technicians, EMTs, nursing home aides, pharmacists—are God’s messengers in the battle between life and death.

I offer you the ancient words of the Jewish sage Ben Sira (2nd century BCE), and the contemporary prayer of Rabbi Ayelet Cohen.

It comes with deepest appreciation for your courage, and with the hope that your heroic efforts be blessed with success.

Ben Sira—Chapter 38

1 Honour physicians for their services,

for God created them;

2 for their gift of healing comes from the Most High,

and they are rewarded by the king.

3 The skill of physicians makes them distinguished,

and in the presence of the great they are admired.

4 God created medicines out of the earth,

and the sensible will not despise them.

5 Was not water made sweet with a tree

in order that their power might be known?

6 And God gave skill to human beings

that God might be glorified in their marvellous works.

7 By them the physician heals and takes away pain;

8 the pharmacist makes a mixture from them.

That their work may not fail;

Nor health from God’s earth.

Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen—Prayer for Healers

May the One who blessed our ancestors

Bless all those who put themselves at risk to care for the sick

Physicians and nurses and orderlies

Technicians and home health aides

EMTs and pharmacists

Hospital social workers and respiratory therapists

(Please include other frontline healthcare workers. And bless especially _____)

Who navigate the unfolding dangers of the world each day,

To tend to those they have sworn to help.

Bless them in their coming home and bless them in their going out.

Ease their fear. Sustain them.

Source of all breath, healer of all beings,

Protect them and restore their hope.

Strengthen them, that they may bring strength;

Keep them in health, that they may bring healing.

Help them know again a time when they can breathe without fear.

Bless the sacred work of their hands.

May this plague pass from among us, speedily and in our days.

J. Rolando Matalon

Written By J. Rolando Matalon

José Rolando Matalon, B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was educated in Buenos Aires, Montreal, Jerusalem, and New York City. After his ordination at the Jewis...