Last week I had the honour of representing the Jewish community in the Province of Flemish Brabant at a ceremony to commemorate those who have died as a result of Covid-19 and to express solidarity with those recovering from the disease. I sang El Male Rachamim – a Jewish prayer for the dead mostly associated with funerals and stone settings, expressing confidence in the mercy of God, the Shekinah and Her protective wings. I have to admit I was a little nervous, because I had never sung this beautiful prayer before. But the wings of the Shekinah carried the melody. The Muslim representative intoned a surah from the Qur’an in more or less the same musical tone. I felt aligned with him.
The days ahead lead us from Shabbat Chazon, in which the prophet Isaiah’s visions assail our ancestors for being a brood of vipers, offering sacrifices tainted by public and personal injustice, mistreatment of the weak, the poor, and the outcast, to Tisha b’Av, our people’s day of collective lamentation for the disasters – khurbanot that have befallen us in the course of history; these disasters begin with the spies returning from scouting the promised land and instilling fear instead of confidence in God’s plan (repeated last Shabbat in the first parashah from Devarim), through the destruction of both Temples, the expulsions from Spain and England, the Shoa.
Tisha b’Av is also, by tradition, a day for visiting cemeteries. Perhaps I should have intoned some verses from the book of Lamentations at the commemoration. I believe those who have lost loved ones would have understood the words of Israel’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem: “How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! […] Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks. […] From on high he sent fire, sent it down into my bones. He spread a net for my feet and turned me back. He made me desolate, faint all the day long […].
Surely Covid-19 is a global khurban.
But perhaps the challenge is to listen to Isaiah today more than ever. Our ceremonies and commemorations may not be tainted, our lamentations may be heartfelt and genuine, we might even mean it when we say ‘you’re in our prayers’. But how do we confront private and public injustice in the days of Corona ? How do we promote just treatment of the weak, the poor, the outcast? How will we do this in the months to come, as our weaker, poorer sister nations continue to face the pandemic with little if any resources while wealthy nations amass potential vaccines by the millions.
Someone jokingly asked if Jews would have a commemoration in centuries to come, a new festival during which everyone wears a face mask but few know the origins of the tradition. Will we read Lamentations on that day or Isaiah ?
IJC Rabbinical Intern