We’re celebrating at our house. I’ve gotten my first AstraZeneca vaccination “jab.” I’ve got a sore arm and felt droopy afterwards, but I’m thrilled to have finally gotten access.
As a pragmatic, 40-something Gen X-er, I had to wait my turn. Then I rushed to get an appointment. In the Manitoba social media world, we heard others complain that the system was difficult to navigate. The deadpan reply from our cohort was something like, “Guess you’ve never had to get up early to try to register your kids for swim lessons.” In a place where resources like, say, vaccination or indoor pool swim lesson spots, are very limited, we’ve learned to negotiate systems that were not designed for our needs or to be welcoming.
This big event for 40-somethings in several Canadian provinces happened to coincide with the Torah portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, Leviticus 16:1-20:27. This big double parashah (portion) covers a lot, including what it means to be holy. In some cases, it might mean “to be prepared.”
It’s also the portion that encourages us to “Love your neighbour as yourself” and Leviticus 19:34 reads, “The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God.”
The Torah is, sort of, a holiness how-to guide of its time, and some of the issues may no longer be everyday things for many. However, the pandemic forces us to be prepared for simple things like wearing a mask during a shopping outing. Add in more complex things, like obtaining access to that coveted vaccination, too. It’s interesting that the weekly parashah topics like preparation, holiness, loving neighbours and caring for strangers all came up at once.
The nurse who gave me my jab had worked in the COVID wards. She exuded calm as she went through her vaccine script. She made the moment feel monumental and holy while preparing me. When I thanked her, she said how great it was to be part of this effort to keep so many others healthy and safe after experiencing the suffering in the hospitals.
As I sat in the doctor’s waiting room for my 15 minutes after the jab, I thought about this. Masking up, getting vaccinated and social distancing are all ways that we show love for one another right now. Those actions are so powerful that I’m affronted and sad whenever someone demonstrates as an anti-masker, doesn’t wear a mask or even spits in public. Indeed, that means he doesn’t love his neighbour enough.
While I waited, it was a quiet. Yo-Yo Ma wasn’t serenading others on his cello in the clinic or anything like that. Instead, I turned and congratulated a stranger, a man who had also just gotten his shot. It was an oddly affirming moment. He had a spouse with an immune condition. Like me, he had kids learning at home. At first glance, I might have felt apprehensive chatting – he was heavily inked with tattoos and intimidating. Still, the love we both felt towards the universe for this opportunity and to those who also cared so much that we’d rushed to get vaccinated, was tender and transformative.
While I’d been able to get my shot, alas, Manitoba, and other parts of Canada seem to be quickly losing their battle to outrun the third wave. Vaccines can’t get into arms fast enough. Yet, as I read the news, there are also multiple reports of moments where people are taking care of strangers. In North Dakota, there’s now a pop-up Moderna vaccination site at a rest stop. They managed to vaccinate 62 truck drivers from Manitoba the first day. This was such a gift to our province, which hasn’t chosen to prioritize these essential workers.
In Montana, the Blackfeet Nation has invited Albertans to cross the border (with permission) to get vaccinated on their reservation. They were able to use up expiring vaccines on both strangers and Indigenous relatives who lived across the international border.
Many Jewish people have reported on social media that they recited the Shehecheyanu or the slightly more complicated “bathroom prayer,” which thanks G-d for the miraculous workings of our bodies. I uttered a silent prayer of my own, too.
It was also a chance to appreciate the kindness of strangers who looked after me. The doctor stuck his head in to ask if I had any questions. The nurse and I had a deep conversation – about illness, death, birth and our struggles as parents – in our few minutes together before and after the vaccine. Like so many who’ve been mostly social distancing and staying at home, these nurturing interactions have been few and far between this year.
I must admit, when we stream services on Shabbat at home, I’m not standing up much. I’m not on my tiptoes as we would in synagogue when we sing the Kedusha – the part where we say, “Holy, Holy,” and try to ease ourselves up closer to heaven and to the angels. Preparing oneself and trying to be holy is, for all of us, a process, but I felt just a little more prepared after what I experienced this week.
If you’re anxious about needles, don’t worry. My kids looked at my arm and I don’t have a “hole” there!
I feel like my vaccination experience captured a snapshot of how we can all strive to be more prepared. It’s an opportunity to love our neighbours, care for the stranger and, maybe, in the process, become a bit closer to heaven and more holy.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.