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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Idan Scher

Parshat Ki Tisa: COVID-19 & The Need for Community

This week’s Torah Portion, Parshat Ki Tisa, contains the narrative of the golden calf built by the Jewish people after having just received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, the subsequent breaking of the Ten Commandments, and the re-receiving of the Torah on Yom Kippur.

The introduction to this episode and the first topic discussed in this week’s Torah portion is the “Mahatzit Hashekel” the giving of the “half shekel”. All Jews over the age of twenty were to give a half shekel, no more and no less, for the upkeep of the Temple. This half shekel is described as “giving an atonement”, and a mere five verses later we are told “it will thus be a remembrance for the Israelites before God to atone for your lives.” (30:16).

Our Sages teach that the day of Yom Kippur itself has the power to atone for those who see themselves as part of the community, even though complete repentance has not been achieved and the person continues to sin. However, for those who cut themselves off from the Jewish people and do not see themselves as part of the community, do not receive atonement on Yom Kippur.

This is the power of Yom Kippur. The mere act of identifying as a member of the community helps to renew our relationship with God and our fellow human beings. Being a committed Jew, identifying Jewishly and as part of the community means supporting our communal infrastructure, of which the Temple was at the centre.

The Temple served as a gathering place for the Jewish people, a place where we came together as a people to commune with God as well as our community. Everybody had to participate, and participate equally in the best way they could. The fact that we give a half shekel indicates that no one person acting alone can be truly effective. When we identify as part of a greater collective (and not as disparate individuals) working together to fulfill the responsibilities that come with such understanding, only then are we truly a community.

The importance of ensuring that we all participate in and support our communities is perhaps the most crucial message derived from the sin of the golden calf. Out of a male population of over 603,000, only 3,000 Jews actually participated in worshipping the golden calf. 99.5% of the Jewish people remained faithful to Moshe and God. Yet the entire nation, the entire community, had to take responsibility.

We live as a community and die as a community. We thrive as a community and we fall as a community. And it is up to every individual to ensure the sustainability, in the present and the future, of community. Rarely has this concept been more crucial to internalize than now.

Community and the power of community look different depending on the circumstances. Sometimes it is about dancing at weddings and visiting Shivas (houses of mourning) and sometimes it looks drastically different. And as circumstances change we need to thoughtfully adapt to ensure that the power of community is still felt by everyone.

Now, circumstances have changed.

With the scary pandemic moving through the world this is a time of great anxiety. Community now looks like a phone call to others who may be silently suffering not with Coronavirus but because of the increased anxieties that are the result of it.

This is a time when there is a panic impulse to stock our pantries with as much as we possibly can. Community now looks like thinking for a moment and making sure there is still enough on the shelves for others, those that cannot just rush out of their homes as they hear that the last of the toilet paper is flying off the shelves. Or even better, it is about taking a moment to think of the people in our community who we know cannot make it out to shop at a moment’s notice and picking up basic necessities for them.

This is a time when we are prudently trying to practice “social distancing.” Community now looks like making sure that “social distancing” remains merely a physical construct as intended but that on a spiritual, emotional, and metaphysical level, we make sure that the fabric of our community if anything is strengthened, as we make it clear that we are all thinking about each other at this time and always.


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