As we face the fourth wave and the COVID Delta variant, many Canadians are less concerned. If one is vaccinated, risks are much lower. Outside, I see many close-knit groups of people strolling on the streets to restaurants and bars. This correlates with Manitoba’s recent choice to abandon capacity and indoor mask requirements. For those with kids under age 12, it’s a scary scene right before school starts. The Delta variant is looking for vectors, and unvaccinated kids may be one of them.
It’s hard to stop thinking about this as a parent. In anxious moments, I hear the Jaws movie’s theme music as we drive past the elementary school. It’s still summer, but Rosh Hashanah, a new year and a time of reckoning are around the corner.
Much of the pandemic rhetoric now involves a refrain of “getting back to normal.” However, for many of us, we’re not sure normal’s going to ever be the same. Many people have died. Normal isn’t the same after the death of a loved one. Normal also isn’t the same for those who were very ill or are suffering from long COVID. For many parents, including me, this prolonged time at home with my kids has resulted in more teaching and childcare and a lot less time to work. Things may change, but “normal” is something elusive. If our kids are too young to be vaccinated, I’m not sure we’re there yet.
Yet, Elul, the Hebrew month where we contemplate our actions in time for the New Year, is upon us. Even if you don’t ever get to a morning minyan, someone’s blowing a shofar every day now, around the world, except for Shabbat. It’s time to wake up our souls.
This metaphor about “normal” has a lot in common with teshuvah, when we seek forgiveness for what we’ve done wrong to others this year. We apologize and seek forgiveness, but any relationship where one party harms another may remain forever changed. It’s one thing to look at the Torah portion of Re’eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17) and read that Moses set before the Israelites the choice, from G-d, between blessing and curse, and simplistically say, “It’s easy! Choose to be a blessing.” Many sermons sound like this, but, when things go off track, it’s not always simple. Obviously, trying to fix it is the right thing to do, even though the effort may not make a relationship all better.
I’ve been studying the talmudic tractate of Sukkah and, on page 31a, there’s a good example of this kind of unsatisfactory resolution. On this page, an old woman comes before Rav Nahman, the exilarch (leader of the Babylonian Jewish community) and the sages and screams, saying they are sitting in a stolen sukkah. Remarkably, no one disagrees with her! She’s upset because the sukkah was constructed with wood that was stolen from her. Even though she’s right, Rav Nahman is condescending. He pays no attention to her.
Rav Nahman says, “This woman is a screamer and she has rights only to the monetary value of the wood. However, the sukkah itself was already acquired by the exilarch.” His legal ruling is that, when a sukkah is built of stolen wood, the wood’s original owner only deserves compensation for its value.
In Rabbi Elliot Goldberg’s introduction to this Talmud page online on My Jewish Learning, he is uncomfortable with this decision. In other talmudic discussions, a stolen lulav is invalid, or G-d denounces theft, even for the sake of heaven. Even if this stolen sukkah fulfils the commandments on Sukkot, Rabbi Goldberg writes that mistreating an elderly woman who has just been robbed is wrong. Rav Nahman lacks respect for her, demeaning her by calling her “a screamer” and failing to speak to her directly.
What is going to fix this relationship or make things “normal” again? If someone pays this woman for the wood, it doesn’t make appropriate amends for her experience, even if that were all she were entitled to legally.
When studying this, I saw an odd metaphor for some of what’s going on around us. We may be transitioning to a new time in which we all have to cope with COVID as endemic. Our new “normal” may include breakthrough illnesses in those who are vaccinated. It may include feeling unsafe or condescended to or unfairly dealt with, as we navigate changing public health orders that don’t keep some of us safe. This may feel risky or, for some people, like an amazing freedom, as they legally disregard the risks.
However, the chances of being ill or having long COVID remain. Like the old woman who is robbed, we may be eligible for compensation after the fact, but the original trauma remains. If someone steals your wood, it isn’t OK. You may get COVID, even if you’re vaccinated. It might not be OK. Worse yet, you could experience the loss of a child or another vulnerable family member who couldn’t be vaccinated. There’s no compensation for that. Losing even one person is too many.
I may be a risk-averse scaredy-cat, but I’ve been thinking about that talmudic elderly woman in Sukkah 31a. If she hadn’t been robbed in the first place, she wouldn’t have had to confront important rabbis and been treated poorly. The new normal for her didn’t get her wood or her dignity back. So, too, if we can be careful, perhaps we can avoid getting sick during a pandemic – but people don’t choose to be robbed or to be exposed to a virus. If we’re careful, bad things can still happen.
What does this mean for Rosh Hashanah this year? When we seek forgiveness and resolution with others, perhaps it’s not enough to simply try and fix only what we’re legally obligated to fix. If we want a “new normal” in a relationship or in society, we will have to build trust, mend fences and patch up things so that our mistakes can be mended. Our new societal normal should result in an even stronger darned fabric than what existed before the pandemic hole was torn out. We can’t expect everything to come out OK if we behave as Rav Nahman did.
I don’t know how the fourth wave will go, or if vaccination will protect our kids. We could think about one another, behave kindly and with compassion in the meanwhile. Masking up, keeping our distance, washing our hands, and doing extra for one another are important. We owe it to one another, and to that older woman that Rav Nahman shamed. Maybe, when it comes to some Jewish laws or health care, the bare minimum required by the law is just not good enough.
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.