Standing on our doorsteps, whole streets clapping and cheering together: people across the world are finding ways to thank key workers for their incredible fortitude and hard work in this time of great risk and uncertainty.
These public displays of solidarity and gratitude are moving and important.
Our current moment draws attention to the kinds of work that are essential for society to operate its most essential functions – those of care, welfare and the supply of food, drink and medications.
The Talmud also has a notion of essential work. In tractate Sanhedrin, it is taught that a Torah scholar is not allowed to live in a city without a functioning court, an ethical tzedakah fund, a synagogue, a bathouse, a doctor, a scribe, a shochet and a teacher of young children. This list is remarkably similar to the kind of roles we might describe as key worker roles in our modern world.
The list sets out a vision of essential social functions, almost like the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The places listed represent health, justice, education, hygiene, the ability to record our stories and spiritual space; these are the things that ought to take precedence before we turn our minds to higher order tasks, such as the act of study.
This list from the Talmud is a helpful reminder for all of us, and especially in this moment, that protecting all of these functions is part of our religious framework. In order for Torah to reside in a place, these things must first be established.
This list also ought to remind us that although there is much discussion of how to use this time to be our most productive, to do things such as learn new languages and write books, that we can only do that if we have attended to our fundamental needs. As we show kindness and gratitude to others, so too must we be kind to ourselves.
It is also a call to action. There is much we can do as a community to support these key workers and their families. Whether it’s by joining the NHS’s new volunteer army, supporting community charities that have increased need in this time, caring for vulnerable and older members of our synagogue communities and doing our bit to stay home – we all have a role to play.
- Deborah Blausten is a rabbinic student at Leo Baeck College