I am sad today, and there is no way for me to deny it. I’m sad that we are meeting like this, of all days, on Rosh Hashanah. We should be in our comfortable and homey Sanctuary. We should be listening to the Cantor in-person, singing beautifully alongside our wonderful octet choir. We should be greeting each other with warmth and tenderness, exchanging hugs and kisses.
We should be standing before the open ark on Rosh Hashanah and feeling God’s presence, because the Sanctuary at Temple Sinai is the place where so many of us have felt that presence before – at bar and bat mitzvahs, at weddings, and at funerals, too. When we see the Torah scrolls in the open ark with their white mantles on Rosh Hashanah, it means something to us. It makes a take a deeper breath and feel that we are experiencing holiness in a holy place. It means something that no video conferencing application can replace. It makes me feel sad not to be experiencing that with you right now.
And it is all because of a deadly virus that has turned our world upside-down. And it is all because of a law – not a law of the state of Rhode Island or an executive order from the Governor, but our law – our Jewish law – demands that there be no commitment higher than saving a life. We cannot have the Jewish experience we crave this year, because Judaism itself says that there is something else that must come first. We must love life even more than we love being together on Rosh Hashanah. It’s tough love that we are practicing today. And it hurts.
Pikuach HaNefesh. That’s the name of the law in Jewish tradition. Literally it means “The Saving of a Life,” and it is one of the highest values of Jewish tradition. According to the Talmud, one may override or temporarily cancel almost any other commandment in order to save a life.
There is a famous story about this in the Talmud about Hillel, the man who grew up to be the greatest rabbi of the first century B.C.E. According to tradition, Hillel moved from his birthplace in Babylon at age 40 to Jerusalem in order to study Torah with the two greatest sages of his time, Shemaya and Avtalyon. Hillel was a poor woodcutter, chopping tree trunks into logs with an ax to feed people’s fires. He could barely afford the half dinar that was charged every day to attend the house of study. The Talmud says that Hillel worked every day to earn that half dinar to attend. One day, he could find no work and was unable to afford even the small amount to enter. So, what did he do?
In ancient times, it was common to build houses in the Middle East with a large circular opening in the roof, called an oculus, to let in the sunlight. There was such an open roof on the house of study. Hillel, determined to learn as much Torah as he could, climbed up the side of the building onto the roof, and sat at the edge of the oculus to hear words of Torah taught by Shemaya and Avtalyon. You can imagine him perched on the edge, some twenty feet above the floor, straining to hear the words of his teachers.
Maybe that is why the story tells us that he didn’t notice when it started snowing. Maybe that is why, when he started to shiver from the cold, he didn’t move from his perch. So, let me ask you: today, what would motivate you to sit outside on a cold, snowy day? Watching your children play in a sporting event? Going hunting or ice-fishing? Teaching your grandchildren how to make a snowman? For Hillel, it was Torah that kept him on that roof.
Down below Hillel’s perch, in the house of study, it was Friday evening, Shabbat was beginning. As they Shemaya and Avalyon taught their students, Shemaya turned to Avtalyon and said, “Avtalyon, my brother, at this time of day, the study hall is usually bright from the sunlight, but today it is dark. Is it such a cloudy day?” They both looked up and saw the image of a man on the oculus, partially blocking the light. The two sages went up onto the roof to get Hillel. According to the Talmud, he was buried in four and a half feet of snow.
They dug him out and brought him down into the study hall. He was shivering, confused, and had difficulty even speaking. But what could they do for him? It was Shabbat and the Torah forbade any work that might save him. Shemaya and Avalyon directed their students to build a large fire in the fireplace to warm Hillel, despite the Torah’s explicit prohibition against kindling fire on Shabbat. Avtalyon said to Shemaya, “This man is worthy for us to override Shabbat for him” (B. Yoma 35b).
Certainly Shemaya and Avtalyon admired Hillel for his determination to learn Torah. However, the Talmud goes on to explain that the same would have been done for any human being. When a life is at stake, almost any law can be overruled to save that life.
You may know another famous story that seems even more pertinent to our current situation. This story is of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the 19th century Mussar movement, an approach to Jewish character development. When a deadly cholera epidemic broke out in his city of Vilna, Lithuania, reaching its peak just before Yom Kippur of 1848, Rabbi Salanter recruited his students to travel through the city to care for the ill.
On the eve of Yom Kippur, he went himself to all the synagogues in the city to announce that people should not fast in order to preserve their strength to survive the epidemic. He urged that Yom Kippur services be shortened to reduce people’s exposure to the disease. The next morning,, he went even further. He stood at the front of the synagogue with wine and bread. He made kiddush and ate in front of the entire congregation - on Yom Kippur. He asked everyone to eat and he taught a lesson on the talmudic principle of Pikuach haNefesh, the saving of a life.
Today, we are taking the ancient principles of Hillel, Shemaya and Avtalyon, we are taking the early modern teachings of Rabbi Israel Salanter, and we are applying them to our own situation. It is not something we do easily, but we do it meaningfully.
We should be gathering at Temple Sinai today to welcome in the new year of 5781, but we cannot. Instead of doing what our hearts yearn to do, we will do what our minds and our morality command us to do. We will act to save lives.
And we should note that this imperative to save lives goes far beyond abstaining from in-person services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The same principle asks us to take courageous action to save lives in many other ways. This certainly includes wearing masks in public and maintaining social distancing. But it also means even more than that.
In order to save lives, we all have to be willing to go the extra mile to speak up and take action against life-threatening situations. We need to be mindful of the dangers facing medical providers, health and public safety professionals, custodians and sanitation workers, teachers, and others who are on the front-line of this public health crisis. When they are pressured to work in unsafe conditions, it is up to all of us to do something about it.
For example, that is the situation of workers in Rhode Island nursing homes – the place in our state where most COVID deaths have originated and occurred. Nursing home workers have been asking for years for regulations to provide minimum standards for safe staffing levels, as exist in every other state in New England. A new Harvard study shows that they are right. It demonstrates that the higher the staffing in nursing homes, the lower the number of cases of COVID-19. The lower the staffing levels, the more COVD – both for healthcare workers and for residents. By being forced to work in stressful conditions with inadequate staff, they and their patients are at heightened risk for failures in infection control that can lead to (and have led to) more death. As Jews, we have an obligation of pikuach nefesh, saving lives, to take action. It’s what our tradition expects of us. It’s a matter of our morality and of character.
But the epidemic we are now facing does not just test our character. It also reveals our character. Over the last six months I have heard so many stories, and I have seen so many times with my own eyes, how members of this community have stepped up to do what is right. It’s the person who checks in regularly on an elderly neighbor who is isolated and frightened. It is the hospital nurse who is working extra shifts in an unfamiliar unit to do her or his part in the fight to contain COVID. It’s the parents who are spending extra time with their kids to help them manage the anxiety and the challenges that come with distance learning. It’s the person who is taking extra time to be with a friend who is grieving the loss a family member in the midst of this plague. That is character.
As a community, we may be sad today about not being where we ought to be on what should be one of the sweetest days of the year. We can be hurting over the losses and loneliness we are feeling. But we can also know that we have the moral courage, the strength and the character, to turn this dark moment into an opportunity to shine our light and to find sweetness amid the bitterness.
L’shanah tovah umtukah tikateivu.
May you be written for a good and sweet new year.