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Confronting the New COVID Normal: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5784

(photo: Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)

The High Holidays we observed in 2020 were like none we’d ever experienced before. We were in the midst of the Covid lockdown – and like every other synagogue, we held our services entirely on Zoom. It all felt utterly unprecedented and surreal – apropos of a year in which pretty much everything felt unprecedented and surreal.

On Rosh Hashanah, I addressed the Pandemic directly, suggesting that we were all in a collective state of grief – both for those had died and for the world we had lost:

Amidst all of this massive change, even as we adjust to this new world, there’s that nagging question lurking in the background: how long will we actually have to do this? When will we get our lives and our world back? When will things get back to “normal?”

I think it’s safe to say we’ve come a long way in the three years since then. Just a few months after I spoke those words, the first COVID vaccine was administered – and since that time, COVID related deaths and hospitalizations have decreased dramatically. Lockdown orders have been lifted, mask mandates have disappeared and social distancing requirements are now a thing of the past. While a large percentage of the workforce are still working from home, increasing numbers are returning to their workplaces. 

We’re also receiving a confident political message that things are getting “back to normal.” A year ago, President Biden publicly declared that the pandemic was over during an appearance in 60 Minutes. This past May, his administration ended the Public Health Emergency Declaration, dramatically reducing funding for COVID vaccines and treatments. In its announcement, the White House claimed that “(COVID-19) no longer meaningfully disrupts the way we live our lives.”

Is this actually true? Are things really getting back to normal? Technically speaking, the pandemic is not over, though we fervently wish it were. Thousands continue to die every week – in the US, nearly one hundred are dying every day. In recent weeks, a spike has caused a sharp increase in hospitalizations, a dramatic reminder that COVID is still very much a part of our lives and our world. 

What’s the reason for this normalization? On a purely human level, I think it’s pretty easy to understand. We want our lives back. We don’t want to live with uncertainty and upheaval any more. We crave the connection and community that we once knew. We want things to feel normal again. 

But no matter how fervently we might back our days of old, things are still not normal. On so many levels. 

In the first place, things are not certainly normal for the loved ones of the millions who have died of COVID. Almost 7,000,000 people have died from COVID globally since the pandemic began – including over 1,000,000 in the US. The mass grief caused by this pandemic is still very palpable and very real. For those who are just beginning to struggle with the loss of a parent, a partner, a child, the suggestion that it is time for things to “get back to normal” is quite simply, profane. 

This insistence on normalcy dismisses the massive, life-altering consequences of these losses. Many who died of COVID were the primary or sole wage earner in their household. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of children in the US – and over 10 million children worldwide – have lost a parent or caregiver to COVID. According to a report last December by the Covid Collaborative, more than 13,000 children have lost their sole caregiver; children who were already more socially and economically at risk. 

COVID normalization also amounts to an abject abandonment of elderly people in our communities. Hospital admissions, while dropping, are more than five times higher among people over 70 than those in their 50s. COVID also disproportionately affects immunocompromised, disabled and chronically ill people, whose humanity is routinely dismissed by US government and health officials that treat their conditions as expected, and thus somehow more acceptable. 

In a recent New York Times article about the latest COVID spike, I read one subtle paragraph that sums up the prevailing attitude toward those who are at higher risk of illness and death:

At the moment, the numbers suggest that Americans should tailor their behavior to their own risks, some experts said. Those who are the most vulnerable to COVID — older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems — might well choose to take the utmost precautions, such as masking most or all of the time and avoiding crowded indoor spaces.

In other words, those who are the most vulnerable people are essentially on their own. Their welfare is their individual responsibility – it is not the problem of the communities in which they live. 

The changes to our world wrought by the virus remain so profound. The increasing numbers of people who have developed the post-virus condition known as long COVID will attest to its debilitating and life-altering symptoms. Scores of children have lost years of their education. Teachers, health care workers and essential service workers continue to live with acute trauma and anxiety. We’ve witnessed the massive loss of small businesses and the devastation of whole economies. The list goes on and on. Truly, it would take a great deal of willful denial to regard any of this as normal. 

The political motives behind COVID normalization, of course, are clear – and it is causing very real harm. When the Biden administration terminated the Public Emergency Declaration in May, it was essentially capitulating to congressional Republicans, who months earlier had passed a bill they called “The Pandemic is Over Act.” In so doing, it ended a vital series of protections for millions of Americans, causing what the Nation Magazine referred to as “a public health disaster.”

In the meantime, the Biden administration is also preparing to transfer COVID vaccines to the private market. For their part, Pfizer and Moderna have announced that they plan to increase the price of their vaccines by 400%, which will cost uninsured Americans anywhere from $110 to $130 per dose. Such is the human price of the new normalcy. It is, in the end, really just the entrenchment of the old normalcy. 

This human price, of course, is symptomatic of a deeper dysfunction: a system that has always divided humanity into those who count and those who do not. In their important and powerful new book “Let This Radicalize You,” Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes put it perfectly:

(Capitalism) requires an ever-broadening disposable class of people in order to maintain itself, which in turn requires us to believe that there are people whose fates are not linked to our own: people who must be abandoned or eliminated. 

When the COVID pandemic first broke out, it occurred to me that this virus was presenting us with a fundamentally different way to live. It was challenging us to live according to an ethic of collectivity rather than radical individualism. COVID was a dramatic reminder that our neighbors’ fates were linked to our own. And that if we were to literally survive, we had to accept that our personal well-being was inextricably tied to the well-being of all.  

People in disenfranchised communities have long understood this truth. When you live in a system that doesn’t care about you, that regards you as disposable, you learn how to care for one another. Indeed, long before the pandemic descended, poor people, people of color, disabled people, LGBTQ+ people and Native people have been creating their own communities of care through powerful Mutual Aid projects. 

The term mutual aid refers to grassroots groups that organize collectively outside the mainstream and are not dependent on the largess of external charity. While mutual aid projects have long existed in various forms, they mobilized and proliferated during the pandemic in ways that were truly inspiring to behold. As Kaba and Hayes have described it:

In spring 2020, unprecedented numbers of people organized mutual aid efforts to help their neighbors survive. Using technology to overcome the physical barriers imposed by the pandemic, tens of thousands of people started new groups and built new mechanisms within existing organizations to meet the needs of people who were struggling. From delivering groceries and medicine to helping people access remote therapy after the loss of loved ones, people across the country devised ways to care for one another. Contrary to fictitious, popular depictions of people in dire straits, many people coping with the grief, uncertainty, and isolation of the pandemic longed to connect through acts of aid and care and they did. Grassroots groups redistributed millions of dollars to people who were struggling. Empty refrigerators were stocked. Countless people in crisis were met with compassion and assistance. In a society where we are taught to fear each other, many were moved by the realization that we were and are each other’s best hope amid catastrophe. 

To my mind, these words are a powerful description of what the new normal should be. Though we must always fight to hold them accountable, governments are not going to save us. Nor will philanthropic charities, crisis response or nonprofit organizations. Collective care will ultimately be created by communities of people honoring their interconnectedness. By those who understand that they are each other’s best hope. 

As the world increasingly looks to mutual aid groups as a model for living, it will be important for privileged folks not to tokenize disenfranchised people or co-opt their efforts. But having said this, I do believe that the idea of mutual aid models a way of living for all people. One that values a culture of care: interdependence over individualism. Thriving and not merely surviving. A way of creating community that centers innate altruism and a long-term commitment to one another.

In her book, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” Rebecca Solnit pointed out that contrary to the dominant narrative, the natural human response to disaster is not an apocalyptic, individualistic “everyone for themselves” mentality. Through examining the human response to several different catastrophes, Solnit concluded, “The image of the selfish, panicky or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it.” Rather, “most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones.” This, I would suggest, is the true normal: a more natural culture of mutuality, not self-interest and abandonment. 

As you know, last month, the Tzedek Chicago board passed a COVID safety policy for our High Holiday services requiring all in-person attendees to wear N95 masks and have up to date vaccinations. Our board’s decision was prompted by a request from chronically ill and disabled members of our congregation, which inspired our leadership to engage in honest process of discernment. It occurred to me that these conversations were utterly appropriate to our season – a time for interrogating how we can do better in our lives and in our communities.

Two-way masking is still the most effective way to mitigate the spread of the COVID virus. When healthy, younger, abled people put the burden of masking on those at greater risk, whether they realize it or not they are sending the message that they health is not their problem. As one public health expert has written:

I get it—wearing a mask can suck. I don’t exactly enjoy it, and like most people, I’d rather be living life like it is 2019. That’s the final problem with one-way masking: If we can all relate to masking being uncomfortable, why would we suggest that the immunocompromised and disabled be relegated to wearing a mask in perpetuity? 

As I look out into our sanctuary now, to a room full of masked people gathering for Yom Kippur, I see a powerful visual of one community’s commitment to the health of all its members. This what the new normal should look like.

In my High Holiday sermon three years ago, I quoted the great activist poet Sonya Renee Taylor who wrote these words at the outset of the pandemic:

We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature. 

Today, three years after those words were written, powerful interests are trying to convince us that it is time to “go back to normal.” We must not let them. We must continue to hold on to Taylor’s beautiful vision of a new garment, even in the face of such daunting odds. We must cherish this vision and resist the cynical voices telling us that what they are giving us is the best we can hope for. 

Because we should hope for more. We should aspire to more. After all, isn’t this what Yom Kippur is ultimately all about? Every year, at this season, we’re commanded to take a hard, unflinching look at the status quo, openly admit what needs changing, and commit to the hard work it will take to transform it. It’s an inherently radical idea: to proclaim every year that the status quo is unacceptable and that nothing short of genuine intervention will do. If our Yom Kippur prayers are to mean anything at all, we must be prepared to act upon this radical idea. 

This is also the season in which we stand before the open gates of heaven, before the open books of life and death, and pray that we may be written in the book of life for the coming year. But we also affirm that repentance, prayer and acts of justice can “avert the decree.” To me that means that we cannot wait passively for that choice to be made for us. In the end, we’ll need to take responsibility for writing our own names and the names of our neighbors in the Book of Life. If we’re going to be sealed for life, it is we who must affix that seal.

So this new year, let us affix that seal by recommitting ourselves to the value of pikuach nefesh – the moral imperative that views the saving of life as sacrosanct. Let us resist a “return to a normalcy” that values some lives over others. Let’s enter this new year affirming not only in word, but in deed, that it must be all of us or none.

This post first appeared on Shalom Rav | A Blog By Rabbi Brant Rosen, please read the originial post: here

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Confronting the New COVID Normal: Sermon for Erev Yom Kippur 5784


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