RABBI ERIC SOLOMON: The struggle for intimate faith and compassion amid COVID-19

Posted March 29, 2020 5:00 a.m. EDT
Updated April 1, 2020 6:15 a.m. EDT

EDITOR'S NOTE: Rabbi Eric Solomon is a spiritual leader of Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh and serves on the board of Truah: The Rabbinic Call For Human Rights.

After 20 years as a rabbi, I thought I had just about seen it all. Then came COVID-19.

Of late, my congregants at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh have asked me questions, some so heart-breaking that all I could do is throw up my hands and pray.

From the adult child whose mother entered a hospital under lockdown: “Rabbi, how can I honor my mother when they won’t let me sit by her bedside?”

From the new parents who are anxious about the 8th day bris (ritual circumcision): “Rabbi, we are afraid to have anyone come near our child. But we desperately want you to offer the blessings. What should we do?”

From the parent of a child whose bar mitzvah (coming-of-age ceremony) must be postponed: “Rabbi, my mother’s heart is failing. What if she doesn’t live to make it to the new date?”

From the teenager, fulfilling the dream of studying in Israel: “Rabbi, I love it here. I’m growing spiritually beyond belief. But my parents are desperate for me to return. Should I come home?”

And from the funeral home: “Rabbi, we are preparing for our first deaths from coronavirus. Will you feel comfortable officiating in person, or should we bring you in by phone?”

I am not alone. Clergy of all faiths share similar challenges in their congregations.

That is not all. What of the elderly, worried for their health; The financially vulnerable, at-risk of losing jobs; The lonely who find life-saving nourishment from the camaraderie of a congregation.

I dedicate my life to serving God and God’s creatures. That service comes through interaction, holy experiences that bind people to God and tradition.

03-29-2020 Rabbi Eric Solomon

In this time of crisis, the virtual world is a remarkable second-best option, but it pales in comparison to a soulful conversation, eye-to-eye connection; a compassionate hand-shake or pat on the back. How do I shepherd my flock when “social distancing” requires I keep several feet between me and my flock?

I find solace knowing when it comes to suffering, the Jewish people has been there before. There is a Hebrew saying: “We survived Pharaoh, we’ll survive this too.”

Social media certainly has shown it can convey emotion and even anger. But what wisdom can we offer in these times when the challenge is to convey compassion and empathy?

Perhaps no one summed it up better than Viktor Frankl, the Austrian Jewish psychiatrist who lost nearly all of his family in the Holocaust.

In his desperate desire to forge meaning from the madness, he produced this conclusion: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms … to choose one’s own way.”

Hitler could strip everything from Frankl; his livelihood, his material possessions, even his loved ones. But there was one thing the Nazis could never control. His response.

The holiday of Passover is soon approaching and two women from that ancient story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt embody Frankl’s wisdom. Pharaoh, in his desire to oppress the Hebrews, decrees that all midwives must murder the male children as they come out of their mothers’ wombs. Simply stated, he proscribes a genocide.

Two women, Shifrah and Puah, courageously refuse. Pharaoh could make a demand, but he could not control their response.

COVID-19, like Pharaoh, is forcing us to ask profound moral questions: How do we honor social distance but still give support to our loved ones and isolated friends? How do we financially support service industry workers and others even when we may not currently need their work? How do we purchase enough food and other necessities, without hoarding?

God has placed the choice of righteousness or selfishness in our hands.

When congregants come to me with their quandaries, there are no easy answers.

I look to the Torah for insight. I pray to the Holy One for guidance.

And I invite my congregants to ask themselves: What would Shifrah and Puah do?

I once believed that two decades as clergy would grant me greater wisdom about life and its complexities.

COVID-19 reminds me, though I still have a lot to learn one thing has remained true.

A crisis may be out of our hands. But our response never is.

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