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A wakeup call: You are your brother’s keeper

Kol yisrael aravim ze baze — all of Israel is responsible for one another. Of course, in the era of the current plague, we might better say kol anashim aravim ze bazeall people are responsible for one another.

We are, it turns out, our brother’s -- and sister’s -- keeper.

Sarah Wildman

We are responsible for wearing a mask, for ensuring that those who cannot shop receive groceries, and are sustained. We are responsible for keeping our children apart from other children, while still giving them sunlight and outdoor activities; we are responsible for making space for others to walk when the paths available to us are open.

We are responsible for celebrating life’s joyous markers, even at a distance; we are responsible for marking the loss of loved ones; but at a clear distance. We are responsible to look out for those among us who need protection.

Collective responsibility has always been a plank of Jewish life, but perhaps these actions, required of us now more urgently, will imprint it upon us as not an afterthought, not as extra volunteer work done, but as, once again, woven into the fabric of our lives.

In this moment, this responsibility is as internal as it is external; it is the follow-up text-message, the errand run, the insurance of the safety and sanity of those around us in one of the hardest emotional moments many of us have ever experienced. (And yes, of course it is not, thank God, war, and it is not, thank God, genocide, but it is a mix of dread and fear, a stripping of structure, a bleak uncertainty. The table empty of guests, the walk taken alone, can feel dreadfully quiet.)

It is the note of encouragement, the shouldering of burden; it is the easing of some expectations – how we dress, how we look – and the raising of many, difficult, others – keeping our jobs and families afloat, maintaining a fragile equilibrium – that is forcing us to elevate our sense of how essential collective responsibility is to our identity.

The responsibility of Kol Yisrael Aravim, this care, is typically interpreted to mean we should ensure all those who walk among us have basic needs met – a bed to sleep in, food to eat, water to drink, heat in the winter. But rabbis have long pointed out it is also a recognition of our collective responsibility for wrongdoing, as well as the right doing. We should stop misconduct, if we see it. We should be aware of our own misconduct, we should not let others go down the wrong path.

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The pandemic drives home something that should fundamentally shift within the community going forward. Small scale? It is social distancing itself. It is the canceled concert, the birthday party delayed, the vacation postponed. It is the bewildering stress of schooling children at home, while working from home. (For those of us, like myself, with an immunocompromised child at home, it is recognizing how desperately we appreciate you taking on these burdens.)

But most concretely: It is wearing that mask, even if uncomfortable, even if the day is gorgeous. In fact, that mask is this idea writ both small and large; because that face-covering protects those around us as much, if not more, than it protects ourselves. It is this small personal but communal act; this acknowledgment of those around us, this sense that we must care.

If the pandemic changes one thing about Jewish communal life going forward, it should be to remember how very central this idea of responsibility is to our very being, our community, our identity. We are, it turns out, our brother’s — and sister’s — keeper.

Sarah Wildman is a journalist and author. Her book, “Paper Love,” was published in 2014.

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