Six Mitzvot To Adopt In a Pandemic

March 25, 2020

You are on a ship in the middle of a tempest. The ship is pitching and heaving. Water is sloshing over the deck. The crew is throwing cargo overboard.

You realize with a sinking feeling: This is all about you.

Anyone else been seasick lately? Peering into the gaping maw of the most dangerous pandemic in centuries and wondering what you are doing so flagrantly wrong to bring it about, or what drastic measure you can take to reverse it? Making it all about you may not be so counterproductive. Maybe you weren’t trying to outrun a prophetic mission, like Jonah was on his way out of Tarshish. On the other hand, maybe the storm helps you realize what your mission is.

I’m not going to be the guy who pins any great calamity on gay marriage — some other Jewish man who is evidently closer to God than I am already has done the honors. Instead, I’m using this time to reflect on my own actions. It was not hard for me to figure out why the ship was taking on water with me in the hold. But this isn’t a confession column. So I will get to work on my problem(s), and offer some suggestions to readers interested in helping me.

Many of my friends are dismayed that Shabbat is not the same with no shul, no minyan, no child care, no Kiddush. And Shabbat not being the same has meant that Judaism has not felt the same. I understand the sentiment, but don’t share it. Over the past year or so, I’ve become a six-days-a-week Jew. Sunday through Friday, I’m saying Shir Shel Yom (the psalm of the day); on Shabbat, I’m rarely at shul in time for it. During the week, I’ll bentsch; Shabbat, I’ll retire to the couch after lunch and forget about it.

The coronavirus has forced me to appreciate what I took for granted; it may unlock a new dimension of observance for others. There are six other days of the week when we can be just as Jewish as we are on Shabbat. Here are six ways you can observe your faith — and practice a kind of Jewish mindfulness along the way — during this Sabbath sabbatical:

  1. Washing your hands before eating bread
    Saying the grace after meals

What if I told you that the Torah predicted COVID-19 and included safety precautions in Jewish ritual? You might answer that washing your hands, like the blessings said before eating, is actually a rabbinic commandment, not a biblical one, and you would be right. They’re a package deal with the grace after meals, which is right there in Deuteronomy. Last week I went shopping for the first time post-quarantine and discovered that food was being rationed. Two of everything.  I came home with gluten-free bread that tasted like raisins dipped in sand. I’ll never take flour and water for granted again, which is why I’ll be praying before and after eating them henceforward. Join me.

  1. Ashrei

You’ve heard of lifehacks; here is an afterlifehack: Reciting Ashrei (Psalm 145) three times a day guarantees you prime real estate in the World To Come. No connection to the coronavirus here, because you are not going to die, because you already started observing No. 1 — washing your hands.

  1. Lighting candles
    Wearing a yarmulke

Lighting candles: a Shabbat-oriented mitzvah (also rabbinic). A good way to separate the stress and exhaustion of the week from the day of rest.

Yarmulke: I rarely wear mine to work. However, now I’m working from home, I can wear it again. It covers my cowlicks. These mitzvot often are gendered so I lumped them together. Also it helps me reach the target number of six.

 The coronavirus has forced me to appreciate what I took for granted; it may unlock a new dimension of observance for others.

  1. Going to shul

If you drive to services every once in a while, you can try it on Zoom. I’ve heard rave reviews of a few congregations doing this. Of course, daily morning prayers on my shul’s Zoom still are being held at 7 a.m. so I can’t testify personally. We’re working on a late service.

  1. Honoring your parents

Popular with older demographics.

  1. Expressing solidarity with Asian American friends

When we get upset about anti-Semitic dog-whistling we want other groups to be outraged, too. President Donald Trump defiantly calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” unfairly put a target on the backs of our Asian American friends. Dehumanizing language matters, and Jews should be consistent about condemning it. We can’t control how other people speak, but we can make sure the people who are affected by that speech know we’re hurting, too.

Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles. He’s on Twitter at @thislouis.

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