Rabbis' Corner: Heeding the call of the Shema


The Shema, perhaps our central prayer, can be approached as a twice daily reminder of our interconnectedness. YHWH — All that Was, Is, and Will Be — is One: All life is connected. 
Have we ever felt this more profoundly than now? Certainly not in such a concrete way. This pandemic demands that we apprehend how each of our lives impact one another’s. Of course this goes beyond physical health. Socially, economically and spiritually, our lives are interconnected. In order for us to be well as a society and as a planet, we must attend to everyone’s health, safety and freedom. This was just as true before COVID-19 and will be just as true after it.  In stark fashion, this crisis is waking us up to this truth and the consequences of neglecting it. 
So how would we live if we genuinely understood that our existence is interdependent? Certainly with greater compassion and courage, less concerned with our own health and security alone without addressing others’. 
We would live with enhanced appreciation for those doing essential work of any kind. And for all who strive to support themselves and their families, we would demand just compensation and protections, such as living wages, paid sick leave, access to unemployment insurance, and universal health care and childcare.
We would be much less complacent about challenging the injustice of systems that prioritize wealth, power and whiteness.
We would not stand idly by while anyone was treated as dispensable.
Yes, we can learn from this crisis. We can realize these and other vital lessons. But for those of us invested in doing so, it will take our working together. Because there are many people in power working to squash these aspirations. And this is not new. The fact that, for a wealthy, democratic nation, we were as ill-designed as we were to meet this crisis is not a matter of happenstance. Built into our founding were policies denying rights and protections to large portions of our population. This legacy continues and will only intensify if not challenged.
One of my resources right now is the podcast Scene on Radio. (I highly recommend their amazing second season, “Seeing White.”) This season, “The land that never has been yet,” explores U.S. democracy from our founding to the present, illustrating how its limited parameters are not coincidental, but the product of intentional policies in every generation. As we move through and emerge from this pandemic, we will effectively demand enhanced democracy or we will suffer its opposite.
The work is daunting, but possible. I keep returning to Mordechai’s challenge in the Book of Esther: “Who knows? Perhaps it was for a moment like this one that you ascended to the crown.” Perhaps this is the moment in which we achieve a more inclusive democracy, one aligned with our interdependence. Right now, in solidarity with all who yearn for safety and freedom, let us heed the call of the Shema.

Rabbi Benjamin Barnett has been the rabbi of Havurah Shalom, a Reconstructionist congregation, since August 2017. Previously he was rabbi of Beit Am in Corvallis. He received his rabbinic ordination from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Prior to entering rabbinical school, he worked with mentally ill adults, led wilderness expeditions for teenagers, and lived, worked and studied in Israel.


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