“Who is honored? One who honors others.” –Ben Zoma, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Sages)
The word COVID may be a conjunction of sorts, but the Hebrew Kavod or Kuvid is translated to mean Honor. “Kol haKavod,” Jews have a habit of saying to each other, literally meaning “all of the honor to you.” In the realm of Jewish philanthropy, kuvid is bestowed upon those who fund programs and infrastructure for the entire community. In honoring others with our donations, community members bring honor to ourselves and our families.
So COVID, by a twist of etymological fate, can be understood by Jews as an invitation to honor. To honor ourselves by honoring others. But the pandemic more than nudges us in the general direction of honor. It reveals a crisis of dishonor in our country, and in our community.
The disproportionate health and economic damage COVID does to poor, black, brown, and indigenous people is not new; it is just another ugly example of structural injustice baked into American society and global capitalism. Most of us, on some level, already grapple with the fact that our cheap McDonalds fries are prepared and served by people paid starvation wages and denied benefits. Most of us, on some level, already make peace with devices we know are made from slave labor and rare materials mined in irrevocably destructive ways.
We entered the pandemic era predisposed to justify away deeply unjust outcomes, so when confronted with the new reality of one person’s vacation resulting in another person’s intubation, it has been all too easy for far too many to just live and let die.
Let’s acknowledge that everyone has needs. Especially now, more than nine months into the pandemic, human needs like connection, touch, and some measure of normalcy should be considered as essential as food, medicine, and shelter. To the extent we can meet our needs with activities that carry zero or negligible risk, we have an obligation to do so.
In some instances, there is a higher risk involved with meeting a need, but grace should be extended to people who – absent a safe alternative – bring some degree of risk to themselves and their community when meeting a need.
But how to determine “wants” versus “needs”? This is a tricky one; everyone’s needs are different. History provides a helpful lens, with the example of the civilian effort in World War II. According to mythology anyway, shared sacrifice was central to winning the war. Luxuries like steak were given up across the board, but so were basic goods. Everyone sacrificed. The nation was rich in honor, for neighbors continually pitched in for the survival of neighbors seen and unseen. That generation sacrificed mightily to help people halfway across the globe, who they knew they would never meet because the allied forces understood their fates were entwined.
Back then, the nation humbly adjusted its sense of wants versus needs, and the people came together to meet their needs in ways that didn’t undermine the war effort. Today, we have yet to recalibrate our wants and needs to the reality of the war on COVID. Far too few are willing to make the personal sacrifices necessary to win this war. Quite the contrary, many seem all too willing to offload sacrifice and exposure risk onto workers, who are disproportionately poor and marginalized people. The hidden people shut out of society and disconnected from those with greater comfort and protection.
Yes, COVID accentuates endemic structural injustices in our health and economic systems. It has also revealed our cultural crises of disconnection and dishonor. How do you weigh the harm done to a myriad of workers if the system is set up to prevent you and those workers from encountering each other’s humanity? How do you honor someone you cannot truly see?
The Jewish community, like the rest of the county, faces a profound crisis of dishonor fueled by deeper currents of disconnection. It is well past time for a full-throated expression of moral clarity, from clergy and other leadership on down: Everything we do matters. Our actions have extensive consequences, most of which we will never see. Because we are all responsible for one another, it is incumbent upon each of us to either avoid altogether or minimally engage in any activity that contributes to community spread.
Again – everyone’s needs are different. We shouldn’t condemn anyone who contributes a small amount to community spread in fulfilling a need for which no safe alternative exists. But the degree to which people in leadership positions are continuing, in the worst season of COVID, to engage in recreational behavior at the expense of workers, must be named for what it is: immoral at best, an act of class war at worst.
Many in our community enjoy privileges that others do not. A simple enough concept; such is life. But what happens when those privileges take the form of special protections from community spread, the ability to safely isolate and work from home, or the freedom to not have to work at all? What happens when the people who enjoy a privileged position of safety from community spread actively contribute to community spread that others cannot escape?
It’s not just 300-person Hanukkah parties. One can take every personal precaution available flying during the Thanksgiving or Christmas vacation, but at a certain point, the math presents a stark reality of community spread directly proportionate to the number of holiday travelers. Hundreds of workers make each commercial flight happen, with community spread posing far greater risk to most of them than the traveler. What does the traveler owe the hundreds of people, their families, their communities?
Essential travel is another story. Flying to provide critical assistance to a sick or struggling loved on, for example, is a valid need. Flying to visit one’s healthy parents, with rare exception, is not a valid justification for putting so many others at risk. And neither is Hanukkah, or Passover, or a wedding, or a newborn baby.
George Floyd was a victim of police brutality and racist state violence. He was also suffering from COVID. How encouraging it was to see leaders and institutions from across our white-dominated Jewish community step up in that moment with heartfelt expressions of solidarity, curiosity, and even t’shuvah.
But Black Lives Matter means more than ending police brutality and racist state violence. It means dismantling and rebuilding health and economic systems that disproportionately hurt Black and brown people. And until we get there, it requires us to interrogate our wants and needs through a racial and macroeconomic lens so as to understand and avoid actions that cause disproportionate harm.
When the dust settles and the country and our Jewish community move on from this nightmarish chapter, one silver lining might be that reckoning and reimagining of the health and economic systems that have been revealed as the instruments of injustice they were designed to be. I also pray that we emerge with a shared understanding of – and mandate to fix – the crisis of dishonor fueled by the deeper cultural crisis of disconnection.
It is an American crisis. But we have to work within our own house. The first step is to explore how thoroughly interconnected the Jews in America are to everyone else here. We’ve created wonderful sanctuaries for Jewish-only space and time, but our lives in America are defined by the relationships we have beyond our community that each day expand in breadth and depth. These connections are underappreciated and misunderstood; we need to explore and revel in the sacred connectedness among all people. Black and brown Jews are already leading in this work, recognizing the importance of making time and space to honor their layered connections.
The second step is to honestly address poverty within our Jewish communities. Poverty is taboo, swept under the rug in public spaces. In fact, huge numbers of Jews are poor and destitute in America, and are most often the unseen and marginalized in our communal spaces. Unfortunately, the shame and discomfort of poverty often prevents Jews from feeling comfortable, and too often the poor and struggling exit the community or stop feeling Jewish altogether. We need to reorganize our communities with the needs of the poor at the center. To reframe our orientation based on the neediest among us, and not the other way around. This is what it means to be a Jew. This is essential to seeing the levels of connection that truly exist, the heart’s prerequisite for honoring the other.
Jews will play a part in the larger American project of seeing and building connections, so we can help steer the ship in the direction of greater collective honor. Just as Jews will play a part in the essential work of transforming our health and economic systems into engines of justice and human dignity. But as with any cultural challenge or crisis, we have work to do in our own house to make it more just and whole along the way. Let us rededicate ourselves here, and now.