The antidote to despair in a coronavirus world

(Photo: Pexels/Polina Zimmerman)

During this period when some of our synagogues are making only very tentative steps to reopen, how has our Jewish community been managing?

Luckily for us, alternatives are always available, and that is why, we have been meeting weekly with our rabbi and his wife on Zoom. Every Friday, we study one of the most popular parts of our prayer book. This is called Pirke Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) and is the most popular Mishna of them all – being part of the synagogue liturgy.

Pirke Avot tells us the story of the transmission of the Torah from G-d via Moses, Joshua and his disciples through the generations up until the time that Pirke Avot was written down and published as part of the Mishna in 200 CE.

And as well as studying all aspects of these teachings, leading onto aphorisms as to how to lead the right sort of life, I've also been studying these sayings with my daughter who lives in Jerusalem. And now we have reached my favourite saying of all – which I would like to share with you.

This is the famous saying by Rabbi Tarfon, a third-generation rabbi and scholar, dating from the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70 CE up until the death of Bar Kochba and martyrdom of the famous Rabbi Akiba by the Emperor Hadrian in 135 CE.

Rabbi Tarfon used to say: 'The day is short; but the task is great; though the workers are sluggish, the reward is great, and the Boss is pressing.'

And then Rabbi Tarfon continues: 'It is not incumbent on you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it ... However, the reward of the tsaddik will only be in the world to come.'

What is the day, the task, the workers, the reward and the Boss? And who is the tsaddik who will only be rewarded in the world to come?

The day is the moment that you are living right now. It is our every-day experience and how we live each day in relationship with G-d and with our fellow human beings. The task is no less than that of 'repairing the world' – otherwise known in Hebrew as 'tikkun-olam'. This is not a primarily the work of politicians or leaders – but the mission of every human being, according to their ability.

Rabbi Tarfon is saying that our time on earth is very short – so make the most of it. This means: live every day and hour of the day as if it were your last. Put everything right now and make sure that each second is lived meaningfully, carrying out G-d's will according to our best abilities. The task is great for each one of us, who would rather (at times) revert to childish behavior and indulge in fantasies which won't get us anywhere in the end.

We may naturally incline to indolence, but will this state of affairs really make us happy? More especially, is being slothful really what G-d has planned for us on earth? And most difficult of all, those who are really doing G-d's will are never famous – they just 'get on with it' for its own sake. Doing good on earth, being grateful for G-d's bounty and living a just and merciful life, don't expect to be rewarded at all by pomp, power, privilege or promotions.

On the contrary, just like the impoverished teachers and their families suffering under Roman rule in Israel (mockingly renamed Palestina by the Roman in honour of the Philistines), the Jews worked hard to make heaven out of their daily lives, and a labour of love out of drudgery and toil.

But just in case this all became too much for the small religion, overpowered by much larger, noisier and crueller daughter religions (and, more recently, the religions of atheism, secularism and resurgent paganism), G-d - who is abundantly merciful – tells the ordinary Jewish person that our knowledge of our own inadequacies shouldn't lead us to simply despair – as so many people are doing at present.

G-d knows that we are fallible creatures with faults – and that's how it should be. Even last week, we learned from our Torah readings for Shabbat how our greatest prophet, Moses Rabbeinu displayed anger by hitting the rock, and was at that moment prevented by G-d from entering the Promised Land.

If this could happen to the greatest Jewish prophet of all time, how could we also not sometimes face terrible set-backs – even including the destruction of jobs, prospects, homes, families and our entire reason for living?

So what Rabbi Tarfon, who live in the second century CE, and witnessed horrendous things in his own lifetime, seems to be saying is, 'Don't give up; never despair – live each day as if it were your last; make amends, phone a friend and sometimes G-d manifests Himself in truly mysterious ways.'

For in Tarfon's lifetime there was no obvious hope that the Jews would ever again have sovereignty over their own Land – the Land promised to them in the beginning by G-d. Nevertheless, by keeping faithful to their argumentative and disputatious religion of Judaism (named after the tribe of Judah and the land of Judea) and managing somehow to cope with the trials and tribulations of living in Diaspora for around 2,000 years, the Jews managed to survive.

And who would have thought that on this very day, I could be communicating by e-mail, Skype and Whatsapp with my daughter in Jerusalem, and on a subject which is still as significant to us as when Tarfon first addressed his thoughts to his contemporaries in the 2nd century CE.  How meaningful the words of an obscure Jewish scholar and thinker of nearly 2,000 years ago remain today.

Dr Irene Lancaster is a Jewish academic, author and translator who has established university courses on Jewish history, Jewish studies and the Hebrew Bible. She trained as a teacher in modern Languages and Religious Education.

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