Creating Community During a Pandemic

This weekend will be my congregation’s third Shabbat service using Zoom. We have learned how to pray together and be present for each other even when we cannot maintain physical presence.

Like many like-minded groups, we have managed to remain in regular contact outside of services as well; checking in, calling, scheduling virtual coffee dates, taking virtual classes together, and using the old fashioned technology of telephone calls.

People of all ages are learning how to use new technologies. My nearly 90-year-old uncle has mastered using WhatsApp to make video phone calls, and is gleefully calling as much as he can, reveling in face-to-face contact.

Entering into Shabbat this week, I am reminded of how small we each have become. Our reduced presence in public spaces has allowed nature to try to recover from the damage caused by human carelessness, and in some places the recovery is astounding; there are photos of dolphins playing in the normally filthy waters of the Venice canals.

In this week’s Torah portion, there is a letter written much smaller than elsewhere. It is the aleph at the end of the word vayikra, “he called.” This is the first word of the book of Leviticus, the handbook of the priests because it details how to perform the many sacrifices for which they were responsible.

Aleph isn’t a flashy letter, even though it’s first. The Bible begins with bet. And by itself, aleph is silent; it needs a vowel or another consonant to give it voice.

There are many explanations for its reduced size at the beginning of this book of the Bible, one of which has to do with Moses’ humility. But today I am looking at the small aleph through a new lens.

The disease that has swept across the globe has forced people to withdraw, to make themselves smaller. We’ve had to change, just as Judaism changed when the Temple was destroyed. Having withdrawn into our homes, we are finding new ways to explore being Jewish, just as our ancestors did.

We have reclaimed home-based Jewish traditions and given them new life. There are groups who “gather” via video on Facebook to bake challah Friday afternoons. An elderly friend has Shabbat dinner with her children, each in their own homes in three different states, enjoying each other’s company thanks to Skype.

Like the tiny aleph at the end of the word vayikra, we have made ourselves smaller but we have learned new ways to focus on what matters. And just as aleph needs another letter to make itself heard, we need tools to reach out from isolation to create community.

On this Shabbat, I am grateful for the technologies that have given us voice and allowed us to maintain community. I am grateful to the tech companies that have made it easier and less expensive to stay in touch. And I am so grateful to my own community, people who care deeply about one another and use every method available to stay connected. Yes, we are small. But each one of us matters.

vayikra

Va’yikra, the first word of the book of Leviticus, with a tiny aleph at the end.