When Martin Buber wrote, in his classic book, “I and Thou” (“Ich und Du,” 1923), that “all real living is meeting,” little could he have envisaged the nuanced complexities of “meeting” among today’s vaccinated Americans – we are all stumbling in the dark to act responsibly with our family and friends.
Each of us is continuing to evaluate and reevaluate whom we feel “safe” hugging – our children, grandchildren, siblings? (Few of us at my age have the possibility of hugging our parents.) Extended family? Close friends? Not-so-close friends?
And then there is the big “What if?” What if we are meeting our brother or our daughter at a plane or a train full of strangers who could well be unvaccinated? As the Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes, suggests: “There is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.” If we withhold our embrace now, when will it be “safe” to embrace? In hours? In days? After a full two weeks of quarantine?
Using Buber’s terminology for a mutually intimate I-Thou relationship, how is it possible to nourish the hyphen between the I and the Thou while either the I or the Thou might be harboring a “breakthrough” Delta-variant virus? How absurdly cruel to imagine that a warm, spontaneous hug could be the harbinger of a COVID-caused life-threatening fever!
It’s been 18 months of ebbing and flowing since the pandemic began in March of 2020, and getting together is still a complicated affair, even though for most of us, eligible family and friends are fully vaccinated.
We do not put on our masks when we are with our loved ones – except when we do. We feel free to hug each other – except when we don’t. We try to abide by rules from the Centers for Disease Control – even when they seem to be changing day by day, or even hour by hour.
Nevertheless, despite the setbacks posed by the virulence of the Delta variant and the unfathomable intellectual and moral blindness of anti-vaxxers, many of us are in a far better place mentally and emotionally than we were a year ago. Notwithstanding our occasional feelings of awkward unpredictability, we are once again beginning to get together in person.
Like many other synagogues throughout New England, Temple Habonim, in Barrington, held in-person High Holy Days services during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, along with the now “normal” live-streaming alternative.
To attend in person, an individual needed to register in advance, to ensure enough space for required social distancing, and all attendees needed to be fully vaccinated and to test negative for COVID-19 a day or two before both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In addition, all worshippers, while in the building, needed to be wearing a KN95, K95 or KF94 mask – each of them equally uncomfortable.
Of course, somewhat different arrangements were made for High Holy Days family services in which children too young to be vaccinated were present.
From my perspective, to have had the privilege of worshipping in person with members of my Temple Habonim family during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more than compensated for the minor inconveniences. While live streaming and Zoom kept our community together during the worst of the pandemic – and is still keeping us together as the pandemic hopefully ebbs – a two-dimensional flat screen is no substitute for the presence of three-dimensional human beings, even though partially hidden by masks, offering their prayers to our multidimensional God.
My wife Sandy and I shared a similar experience at Temple Beth Shalom, in Needham, Massachusetts, on the Shabbat following Yom Kippur, when my granddaughter Charlotte celebrated her Bat Mitzvah both in person and online.
To be physically in the Beth Shalom sanctuary with family and friends, from both near and far, to witness my granddaughter’s timeless yet time-bound rite of passage, was well worth the complexities of “staying safe” during this time of Delta. It would have been impossible a year ago, but here we were: family and friends, all of us together at one time and in one place!
To echo Fran Ostendorf, editor of Jewish Rhode Island, who wrote compellingly in September of where we need to go as a community this coming year: This is not the time to complain about what we still cannot do. Rather, this is the time for us to celebrate all that we can do once again!
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.