Some of you may have heard that our senior staff was exposed to Covid this past Tuesday. As a result, given the increasing risks of my being contagious over the next few days, I plan to attend our (indoor) services remotely this Shabbat and will, God willing, conduct in person three outdoor namings and an outdoor wedding on Sunday. I have consulted with medical professionals all the relevant families and have arranged for a backup plan for the wedding. Hopefully I will not test positive. But it would be very sad were I not to make it.
We have entered the “Wild West” portion of the Covid era. With so many variables and unknowns, with so many otherwise sane people at wits end – and with nearly every public official afraid to upset all their at-wits-end constituents – it has been left to individuals to set their own safety standards. We need to be guided by the science, as they say, but we also need to be guided by our moral principles, and foremost among them is “cause no harm.”
This has put a particular strain on clergy, who answer both to their congregants and to a Higher Authority. As a result of added stress, many clergy have simply thrown their hands up and headed for the hills.
We’re the ones who need to be unswerving in the face of pressure to conform, while also understanding of the reasons why people are so tired of precautions. But we also know that when we officiate at a life-cycle event, that is often one of the most important moments of that congregant’s life. Unlike a late-night talk host, if we test positive, we can’t simply rerun an old broadcast, and unlike an elected official, we can’t simply reschedule a key vote. The event we might miss could well have been in the planning stages for years, and during the Covid era, postponed already. People count on us, and so clergy need to be worthy of their trust by trying to stay safe – and keeping others safe too. No one cares if Jimmy Kimmel can't perform a wedding. But when a rabbi gets Covid, it's a five alarm blaze for that family.
This week, a day after I heard that I had been exposed, I got a frantic call from someone I’ve known for many years, who now lives in a neighboring community, asking me if I could pinch hit and officiate at his daughter’s bat mitzvah this weekend. Why? Because HIS rabbi suddenly came down with Covid. I felt horribly having to turn him down, knowing how important a bat mitzvah is for any Jewish family. But it's just a small indication of how much this current variant is wreaking havoc with family celebrations that have already been put off so many times.
In the pre-Covid era, if I had a cold or flulike symptoms, I’d load up my pocket with a few extra tissues and just tough it out. I once went through an entire Yom Kippur with acute laryngitis. Each word of my sermon was summoned with all my strength projected into a jacked-up microphone. Each breath was a full-on bellow straight from the diaphragm. It was excruciating. I'd have given my life for a Sucret - but I couldn't even have a glass of water. Afterwards, people said it was the most impactful sermon I ever gave. Such emotion! They had no idea what I was going through.
But until now, nothing could keep me from officiating at a life-cycle event.. It's hard to believe that I’ve never missed a Bar/Bat Mitzvah because of illness in all my years here.
In early Covid times, there were no in-person weddings and attendance was highly restricted at funerals. Brisses were private and namings were put off. The rules were clear and they were followed. Had I felt ill before an event, I wouldn’t have left my home and it would be completely understood. or we would shift to Zoom.
But what happens now in this Wild West era? If I feel a little sick while on my way to a wedding, do I stop the car, turn, go home and test? Do I continue on, say nothing to the family, and just try to keep my distance? What if this happens and I am on a plane? Who wants to get stuck quarantining in a faraway place? Maybe I just suck it up, do the wedding and test when I get home. With testing mandates becoming rarer - as of today you don't even need one to enter the country on an international flight - and tests themselves are not completely reliable, so much has been left to the honor system. In the end, how honest do we think honorable-but-Covid-crazed people really are?
I can’t answer that, but I know that I still must answer to a higher authority. An ethical approach would demand complete honesty and transparency. In addition, I’d like to draw this ethical distinction to help guide us through this Wild West era:
To unknowingly infect is irresponsible. To knowingly infect is immoral.
Unfortunately, tomorrow, five days after my exposure on Tuesday, is precisely when I could be most contagious, even while not yet testing positive. In my mind that means that if I attend an indoor event with lots of people, I’d potentially be infecting people “knowingly.”
So my plan is to attend Men’s Club Shabbat remotely. I think my appearance on a two-way Zoom will have a galvanizing impact. It’s a win-win. I will be 100 percent present and no one will get infected. We’ve found ways to maintain a sense of community and intimacy via technology over the past few years and it is clear that we are going to need to find ways to continue to do that for a long time, even as we come together in person more frequently. And if we have trouble making the two-way audio connection on Zoom, I'll still be there on the screen, smiling and kvelling over the great job our men's club volunteers will do.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with my assessment. And there is a considerable degree of fluidity to it. If I am exposed again, and undoubtedly that will happen, many variables will need to be considered: the transmissibility and virulence of the variant, the number of days between the exposure and the event, the state of the boosters, and the anecdotal evidence of other infections within the particular group. So, everything will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
But in this case, for me, the prudent response is also the moral one. So far, as of this minute I'm testing negative - and I waited until just before Shabbat to send this out. Let's pray that all those who have not been so fortunate will be OK.
Have a good and healthy Shabbat!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
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