The Virus Pandemic: A Personal Response

by Rabbi Danny Rich JP

On one thing we can be agreed: we are living in an extraordinary and challenging moment and each one of us faces one or more difficulty: our own mortality and the possible death of a loved one, illness and un(der) employment, loneliness and isolation, changed patterns of work and ways of communication – new routines for every one of us.

I am thrilled to be returning to Kehillah North London (KNL) to be working as your interim rabbi following the departure of Cantor Tamara Wolfson and until the arrival of Rabbi Leah Jordan for Shavuot at the very end of May.

In my first three days I managed to speak to many of you by telephone (and hope to be in touch with the rest of you this week), and was pleased to hear that, in spite of the difficult conditions of ‘lockdown’, we were all coping. More importantly I learnt three important things about the members of KNL: you made me feel very welcome, we are a robust lot whatever our age and other circumstances, and we are doing our best to support each other in the current situation. I gave many of you my mobile telephone number (07960 741128) and here it is again. Please feel free to call whether simply to tell me you’re doing well, to seek assistance or for a rabbinic chat.

Laura, my wife, and I are blessed with five grandchildren (ages five to less than a year) who all live relatively locally; on more Friday evenings than not they are gathered at our home to light candles and taste challah – and a couple of them usually ‘offer’ to stay the night too. Shabbat and Havdalah over ‘Google hangouts’ where we could all see and hear each other was, to a Luddite like me, nearly as miraculous as the parting of the Reed Sea!

Technology has also played its part in my changing role as a chaplain at a busy district hospital where chaplaincy efforts have moved focus from the patient to their family and by the use of video and telephone rather than face to face. I will not bore you with why it is necessary but very sick patients have families whose pastoral needs are intense but whose risk of passing – or receiving –infection is high.

These very real dilemmas are underpinned, I suggest, by our modern struggle to live with the unknown and with that which we cannot control. The marvellous advances of scientific endeavour, particularly in the fields of medicine and technology, have enabled us to feel in charge of so many aspects of our lives which once were described as ‘in the hands of God’ or ‘subject to the vicissitudes of fortune and fate’.

Jewish teaching has always, of course, acknowledged that there are aspects of our lives which are simply matters of faith. By ‘matters of faith’ I mean that from time to time things happen to us which may be random, or that in our momentary personal struggle we, for good reasons, cannot understand in their wider context. We can sometimes forget that the journey of life is indeed an adventure of uncertainty – the results of which can be unmeasured joy as well as uncontrolled tragedy, imaginative hope as well as deep despair.

In moments such as now, Jews often turn to the Psalms, particularly the well-known Psalm 23. I have a good friend who is a Methodist minister in Lincolnshire, the Revd Bruce Thompson. In a moving personal meditation, A Meditation of Hope (Church in the Market Place Publications: 2011) Bruce offers ‘A Song of Hope After Psalm 23’:

  • Hope is my companion when all else has been lost to me.
  • Hope urges me to rest and reflect in a place of possibilities so that re-creation and renewal are mine.
  • Hope is my guide when I am confused. Even when the darkest of nights seems never ending I find that I am embraced, comforted and consoled.
  • Despair may threaten to overwhelm me. But Hope lingers and anxiety is quelled, allowing the seeds of joy to be sown.

In what for some must be ‘the darkest of valleys’ may we all soon be restored to ‘the path of a good life’.

Finally, to the practical. I am a badly disciplined reader who starts many books and completes far fewer volumes. Before the ‘lockdown’ was announced I guessed I might need to find something symbolic to do for 100 days. I have had on my shelves for some time Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman’s One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millenia of Jewish Conversation (Bluebridge, New York: 2011). I intend to read one of the short one hundred extracts each day as a discipline, hopefully as a joy, and as an acknowledgement that I have no control over the impact such an exercise may have on my future.

Let us keep well and safe and know that this too will end!