The following is the printed version of my remarks at our Shabbat observe March 13, 2020, when we closed the temple due to Covid-19 concerns.
I want to welcome you to our first Quarantine Shabbat —or virtual Shabbat. Normally, I’d ask you to check your cell phones, find a comfortable seat, and finish up your conversations with those sitting near you, but not tonight. Tonight, I’ll ask you to check your sound quality and internet connection, and invite you to join me via the webcast or the Facebook livestream. Seth, Craig, Buffy, Kim, and I have spent the day adjusting our Shabbat observance plans to fit this virtual platform. If you are on the Facebook livestream, I hope that you are able to share this experience with us.
This week’s parasha is memorable for the story of the golden calf. Everyone remembers the golden calf, right? Just saying those two words, “golden calf”, is probably enough. It’s like the joke club, where no one actually tells a joke, but rather says the number of the joke they want to tell, and everyone laughs.
There are many connections we might make to this story based on our modern experience. In these turbulent times, I think this story is another reminder that what matters in our rituals and spiritual experiences are our intentions, what we bring to our observance. The physical manifestations of observance, the color of a talis, the shape of sanctuary, the brilliance of the eternal light, matter much less than the heart and spirit of our experience. This tells me that even when we cannot physically be together in community, we still have the opportunity to bring the same intention to our rituals. Indeed, it is not what is external to us, outside of us, that makes us Jews.
We may not be able to connect with each other right now the way we want to. We certainly wish we could. But over many generations, we have maintained our Shabbat traditions despite all sorts of obstacles; I hope and expect that once the pandemic is over, we will be able to see it in the rear-view mirror as a minor obstacle. I believe that the community we have built together, the connections that we have made with each other, can still thrive and grow even when we cannot be together in person. The same network of support remains to each of us, though right now it is mostly through phone and email. For sure, it is challenging to retain the same feeling of community connection without gathering together, sharing food, and the many other ways we are used to enjoying each other’s company.
If you can’t go see loved ones or have limited your own outings, please pick up the phone and call. If you don’t know how to FaceTime, ask someone to help you. We are still tied together; we can still observe Shabbat together and support each other in many ways.