So much of prayer in Judaism is communal and liturgical. We gather at least once a week to offer prayers that thank, praise and petition G-d for help, such as prayers to heal those we love. Prayer elevates the soul, comforts and provides spiritual connection to the Divine. Some prayers require a minyan, 10 or more Jewish adults (13 or older). We omit these prayers —important prayers — if we don’t have a minyan: we lose some of the most special prayers when we are short of a minyan, including one that comforts grieving family remembering loved ones. Mind you, we can always pray the prayers of our heart, but some liturgy comforts like a warm blanket.
As I write this, news trickles in of more and more closures: schools, bars, eateries, offices deemed nonessential. Houses of worship are closing their doors for the safety of their parishioners and communities. All will miss gathering with fellow congregants, miss the support and camaraderie they provide. Closures are a shame but necessary: COVID-19 is turning out to be highly contagious, and data to date suggest it is significantly more virulent than the flu. We need only look at our friends in Italy to understand why even the apparently healthy must stay away from others to “flatten the curve,” to spread out the influx of patients to hospitals so everyone who needs treatment can get it.
Many will pray at home, and depending on their religion, will be able to say all of their prayers. For us, it means missing some of those communal prayers. The situation seems to be a dilemma, but it’s not. What is most important when we cannot say the prayers we feel obligated to say, when we cannot do the things we feel obligated to do? Life. Preserving life, whether ours or another’s.
This year, in addition to missing important prayers, many congregations will cancel their community Passover Seders, the only Seder some of their members may have planned to attend. Some people may not be able to shop for their essential Passover supplies. Others will have to cancel central life-cycle events in which they’ve invested ample emotion, time, planning and resources. Bar and bat mitzvahs that, if held at all, likely will be held for only family and be streamed. These students have studied the Hebrew reading from the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) often for over a year, some learning how to chant it too. That reading is tied to a specific week, coordinated with their ceremony. I’m not sure what congregations will do.
Yet life is always more important. Even on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, life takes precedence: adults are prescribed a complete (no food, no water) fast, but that fast does not apply to people in situations that would jeopardize health and life. Life always matters more, much more.
Call your loved ones, but maintain your social distance. Give illness a chance to pass. L’Chaim: To life.
Susan A. Youngblood is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom and an associate professor of technical and professional communication in Auburn University’s Department of English. She is also a cat herder — a.k.a. parent of two, spouse, sometime musician, dog wrangler and juggler of what life tosses her way.