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Turn to Tractate Shabbat for wisdom navigating the pandemic

Four months ago, those of us who take part in Daf Yomi opened Tractate Shabbat to begin a 157 day journey through the longest volume of the Talmud. Daf Yomi is the practice of reading a page of Talmud everyday. The seven year cycle takes readers through 2,711 winding, nuanced and fascinating pages of ancient wisdom. Each page is a life, blending languages and opinions, moving from law to lore and back again, granting us direction even all these years later.

It is in Tractate Shabbat that we consider the type of work we can and cannot do on the Sabbath, the proper prayers to say, the foods we eat, the texts we study and much more.

I have been thinking a lot recently about the fact that it is precisely this tractate that has wisdom to guide us as we collectively navigate a global pandemic. We look to Tractate Shabbat, a tome based on the very notion of stopping, as the entire world has come to a standstill. It remains hard to fathom that, for months now, the idea of school and work and play, not to mention celebrating birthdays, marking major milestones, remembering loved ones, has been far from typical. All that we knew has stopped, prompting a kind of worldwide Sabbath. We’ve slowed down, maybe read a bit more, maybe spoken with God a bit more.

Scattered throughout the Shabbat-specific teachings of this tractate are a series of stories about some of our finest and most iconic teachers.

Thirty pages in, we find a story that aims to showcase the enduring patience of Hillel, one of the greatest of sages. Two students bet each other that they can finally aggravate the otherwise composed rabbi. Question after berating question follows and Hillel refuses to become agitated. He deems each of their questions “significant, remaining calm and steady.

Just a few lines later we find a would-be convert who seeks out Hillel to gain even a passing understanding of the Torah. Hillel famously responds: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

In the first instance we find a figure of remarkable patience. I wonder how Hillel would fare in today’s maddening world. Would he finally be flustered? What would he say about those who still refuse to wear a mask?

We are not up against imposing Roman rule as our ancestors were two-thousand years ago, but we are up against daily realities that challenge both every ounce of our patience and our very sense of security. People’s response to — or lack of response to — the pandemic has pushed us to the brink once and again. The Jewish emphasis on patience, born of 40 years of wandering the wilderness, 40 days of waiting at Sinai, generations who hoped for a return to Israel, is a patience that we should aim to hold tightly today, even on those days when it’s hard to do so.

The second story has us pay witness to Hillel’s ability to crystalize five books, fifty-four portions, and six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, into a concise aphorism. Years later we might consider his advice. How are we treating each other these days? Are we making space for those who are vulnerable? Are we extending a hand to those whose lives have been made hard because of the color of their skin or their sexuality or their religion or gender? Are we speaking up? Are we making time? Are we being kind to ourselves?

Later in Tractate Shabbat, on page 115, we are taught that one may rescue sacred writings from a fire on Shabbat. Normally we would stay away from fire altogether on Shabbat as well as distance ourselves from even the perceived work of trying to salvage material objects.

I believe we live in a time when we must actively rescue faith from those who would sully it with hate speech and exclusion. If ever there were a time to hold faith up high as a vehicle to not only engender patience and perspective, but bring greater peace, greater healing, and greater hope to our world, now is that time.

Benjamin David is the rabbi of Adath Emanu-El of Mt Laurel, NJ. He is a cancer survivor, avid runner and writer. He and Lisa are the proud parents of Noa, Elijah, and Samuel. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter @RabbiBPD

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