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The Judges of Today

08/20/2020 02:45:09 PM


Today we begin Rosh Hodesh Elul. It’s a time of introspection and confession. I have a confession to make: I’m kind of over COVID-19. I’d really like to be done worrying about epidemiology and IT infrastructure. I want to get back to singing together in the sanctuary and eating bagels in the social hall, as well as visiting and meeting, celebrating and comforting in person. I know that there are some in our community who feel the same way, perhaps even more strongly than I do. At the same time, having shepherded too many families through serious illness and loss, I cannot pretend that this situation is not still deadly serious. As a society, and as a Jewish community within that society, we are divided about the right approach. There aren’t enough hours in the day to follow all of the Facebook arguments about which experts to listen to, whether school should be in person or not, and so on. Luckily, our tradition has some wisdom to offer.

Our Torah portion this week, Shoftim, anticipates these very questions. Who will make the most important life and death decisions? When two different types of experts disagree, whose view takes priority? Our portion responds that Jewish society is meant to have a careful balance of leadership. The army general must defer to the priest, but the priest may not accumulate land or wealth. The prophet, who speaks for God, risks death for a false prediction. Even the king is limited in his power. Leadership must be collaborative. No one type of voice can drown out the others.

This theme is expressed in a particularly strong way in the beginning of our portion. We are told that one must go to the “priests, the levites and judge(s) who shall be in those days.” I like to think of those three groups as corresponding to the three different types of leadership that we bring together to navigate the current tough questions. The priests are spiritual leaders, corresponding to our rabbis. The levites handle the logistical work that enables worship to happen. They correspond to our lay leadership and other staff. The judges are those with content knowledge and discernment to know how it is applied, even when life and death are on the line, and correspond to our medical experts. We’re following the guidance of this verse when we bring members of these three groups together regularly to chart our course.

I think one of the hardest things for many of us to navigate about the current time is the diversity of approaches in our community. Some schools are totally open, some partially, some not at all. Some synagogues are offering indoor services, others outdoor only, others purely online. There is certainly no shortage of judging that goes on as to whether a particular approach is too timid or too risky.

Our portion famously says that one must go to the “judge who shall be in those days.” Our sages ask - “what other judge could there possibly be?” The answer is that one cannot turn and say, “If only Moses were here!” Every institution looks to its own leaders and advisors, and may be facing different realities and pressures. The advice that is given to one school may not be valid for another. A risk that one organization feels is irresponsible may be seen by another as unavoidable.

Our congregation created a phased “re-entry” plan over two months ago, hoping that things would get better in Georgia over the summer, but prepared for the chance that they might not. As it turns out, the latter was true. Daily case numbers more than quadrupled. While they have begun to drop again in our area, we are still well above the levels at which, this past June, we agreed were too high for a major expansion of in person offerings. We would be going through frequent disruption due to exposures, isolations and cancellations. Outdoor activities may be better than indoor, but present their own challenges, not the least of which is weather. Anecdotally, just in the past few weeks we have had a simcha that was supposed to be in the synagogue building that had to be re-organized 24 hours out because family members were diagnosed.

We recognize that people are frustrated by waiting and by uncertainty. We also understand that we don’t operate in a vacuum. Outside of the walls of the synagogue, people make their own choices about what they think is medically prudent or religiously appropriate. And, let’s face it, walls are less relevant than they used to be. Our leadership continues to explore how we can best meet our congregants’ needs on the most important days of their lives, and the holiest days of the year, while still remaining true to our commitment to Jewish tradition and to the protection of human life. Consistent with what we said in our plan, even before full re-entry, we will be experimenting with different options that attempt to find that balance, and you will see some of those at Shabbat services over the next few weeks.

Each of us, as individuals (myself included) chooses which risks we feel are prudent in our personal lives: whether we return to school, to dine in or out, if or how to visit friends and family. However, as congregational leaders, we understand that we bear a greater responsibility, for both the physical and the spiritual wellbeing of every member of our diverse community. We take that responsibility seriously.

Tue, December 5 2023 22 Kislev 5784