Crossing the COVID-19 River

By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani

The Talmud (Chullin 7a-b) tells the story of Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair who had to cross the river Ginai in order to fulfill the mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuim, of redeeming captives.

In ancient and medieval times Jews were often kidnapped by robbers or slave dealers or were unjustly imprisoned by the ruling authorities to be released against a ransom paid by the Jewish community. Redeeming captives was considered a religious duty of paramount importance. The Rambam stated that the mitzvah of pidyon sh’vuim supersedes that of giving tzedakah. The river Ginai represented an obstacle to Rabbi Pinchas’ endeavour to perform this all-important mitzvah. Having no means of crossing, Rabbi Pinchas commanded the river to divide its waters so that he may cross by walking on the riverbed. At first the river refused until Rabbi Pinchas threatened to pray that its waters dry up. A man appeared carrying a sack of wheat designated to make matza for Pesach. Once again Rabbi Pinchas commanded the river to divide its waters so that the man could cross without getting his wheat wet which would render it pasul for making matza. After he crossed safely an Arab merchant appeared with his wares. Once again Rabbi Pinchas commanded the river to allow the trader to cross by dividing its waters.

The crossing of bodies of water is a metaphor that appears in ancient literature, symbolising passing through the challenges of life or transformation and change. Thus, the newly freed Israelites had to pass through the Sea of Reeds to escape the pursuing Egyptian army and enter the wilderness, moving from the place of narrowness and restriction into the place of potential for growth and creativity. Joshua was tasked with leading the Israelites into the Land of Israel from the plains of Moab. The obstacle that had to be crossed was the Jordan River. As the kohanim carrying the Ark of the Covenant stepped into the water, the river divided so that the Israelites could cross on dry ground.

Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River that formed the border between Gaul and Italy, an act that led to civil war and the elevation of the Roman general and former governor of Gaul to Emperor of Rome.

Currently the world is crossing a river, a River called COVID-19. Unfortunately the pandemic cannot be commanded to “divide its waters” so that we may pass through safely. This crisis that has caused so much damage to our world is an adversary that has to be tackled with respect and caution. We cannot afford to be nonchalant and dismissive, even in this country in which, at the time of writing we are on level one and the number of infections is relatively low. We need to be ever vigilant and disciplined, following the protocols of wearing masks when in public, constantly washing and sanitizing our hands and maintaining physical distancing even when performing the mitzvah of comforting mourners.

Unlike the Ginai River we cannot give COVID-19 an ultimatum but, just as Rabbi Pinchas was determined to save the lives of the captives he was going to redeem, so we are obligated to save lives by adhering strictly to the safety protocols stipulated by medical professionals and legislated by the law of the land. The man carrying wheat for matza represents our determination to continue with life despite the pandemic, but to do so safely and sensibly, whilst refraining from taking any unnecessary risks. And finally, Rabbi Pinchas’ concern for the Arab merchant represents the directive V’ahavta l’Rei-acha Kamocha, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). COVID-19 has made all of us aware of our fragility and also of our responsibility to and for each other, no matter our differences of religion, ethnicity or socio-economic status. We are all in this crisis together and what one individual does or does not do affects everyone else. If we all work together with respect for the lives of all we can cross to the other side of River COVID-19.

Temple Israel

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