Dedication that ensures our collective survival

This week’s Torah portion, Shmini (Leviticus 9-11), tells of the seven-day separation and consecration for Aaron and his sons to become ordained as the priests for initiation of sacrifice at the Tabernacle in the wilderness of Sinai. Given the need the people had displayed for reassurance about God being in their midst during the Golden Calf incident, we realize how much was riding on whether this vessel for the maintenance of the relationship between Israel and God could work, and whether the newly ordained priests would merit to serve in these key roles. How incredible that the priests answered their call to service, given the debacle that had unfolded in the Israelite camp when Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai! They showed up each day and night, committed to carrying out an oath, a promise to bring holiness into a broken world. Without the successful launch of the sacrificial cult and the sheltering presence of Adonai, Israel would have disappeared into the wilderness and none of us, their descendants, would be here today.
We stand now as a world community watching to see if initiation of containment measures can control the COVID-19 pandemic and steer us back to safety without additional massive loss of life. What we already know is that heroic medical providers, dedicating themselves in service — as the ancient priests once did at the Tabernacle and Temple — have sacrificed their lives while trying to stem the early tide of this virus. Men and women, dedicated to their professions of nursing and medicine, are risking their safety and peace of mind for their families in their faithful service to the public well-being. The young doctor at ground zero in Wuhan, heroic Li Wen-liang, not only took up the call to save lives, but spoke the truth about the failure of his government in China to adequately face the threat, for which he was officially censored before he fell victim to the virus.
We will not contain the threat we are facing in our own society without every one of us stepping up in our own heroic ways. We are not all called upon to directly risk sacrifice of our lives to stop the ravages of this pandemic, like the heroes at ground zero in hospitals and clinics. But there are so many elements of our societal response that depend on each and every one of us understanding what is at stake and agreeing that we must each continue to play our parts. We cannot shelter in place in good conscience without speaking out so that others who serve us ­— at the pharmacies, food production, grocery stores, delivery services and other first responders — get the necessary and adequate protection to do their vital jobs. We cannot ignore informed authorities who caution us to distance, wash and avoid gathering in person at this juncture, while the virus could still break out and overwhelm us and our medical providers. Nor can we ignore the tens of millions out of work or the poor and homeless who need accommodations just so that they can adequately shelter in place.
Conscience demands we do our parts, look out for those with the least among us, and speak out for strategic public policy and strong governance. The Book of Leviticus tells us in no uncertain terms that we are called to be a nation of priests, and that we should be holy, because God is holy. What does that mean, if not to see the broken world around us — unlike ever before, magnified by this pandemic? In the social inequities we face and the dangerous challenges that confront us, may we each do our part to re-envision a stronger healthier and more vibrant community, and help to heal our world.
Rabbi Michael Tevya Cohen, director of Rabbinical Services and Pastoral Care at the Legacy Senior Communities, is a member of the Rabbinical Association of Greater Dallas.

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