September 29, 2020
Through Prophets’ Eyes (Yom Kippur 5781/2020)
“The elderly will once again walk freely and safely in the streets of the city…The squares will be full of children playing without fear or worry. It may seem impossible, but it is not…”1 Who do you think said that quote? Governor Andrew Cuomo or the Biblical Prophet Zechariah? Surprisingly, it could go either way. Right? But those are the words of the prophet Zechariah.
I never thought much about that biblical passage until this year, when it seemed like Zechariah was speaking directly to us. It sounds like he was giving us hope for this moment of pandemic. He wasn’t. He was speaking to the exiled Israelites after the destruction of Jerusalem 2500 years ago. I’ve been thinking a lot about those exiled Israelites. Many of you know that my love of history is not academic. For the Jewish people, few events can be called “unprecedented;” enabling our history to serve each generation as a reservoir of strength in the present. And what is this moment, if not a form of mass exile?
So, to get back to the exiled Israelites: who helped them survive their terrible ordeal? It was the Biblical prophets. These prophets were not all alike. Some were grumpy, some poetic, some fiery, and some just downright bizarre. As far as I know, none were sneezy or sleepy. But there is something common to all of them that may be of help to us as we face our exile.
They share the prophetic perspective. Prophetic perspective holds together two opposing outlooks: heartbreak over the moral failure of the past and the conviction that we are capable of more. As the exiles longed for the world that lay behind them, the prophets would not allow them to worship at the altar of an idealized past. With an unflinching gaze and an unrelenting bluntness, they pointed at the moral failures of Jerusalem before it was destroyed, knowing that when the time came to rebuild, they’d be wise to remember their previous failures. But the prophets were not cruel. The goal in doing this was not to chastise the people. It was to awaken them to opportunity and possibility. As the Israelites sat exiled in Babylon, worrying about their future, the prophets buoyed them with visions of a world they would return to create; not rooted in a lionized remembrance of yesterday, but in the promise of a prosperous, honeyed tomorrow. It was this outlook that sustained our people in exile. In the days ahead, all of us will need to draw upon this important tool of our tradition—if we wish to emerge ready to rebuild our city stronger and more resilient.
For better or worse, the first half of the prophetic perspective has been foisted upon us; the half where we see the failings of our social structures. As systems shut down around us, we, people of conscience, faced down the terrible realities to which we had adjusted ourselves.
I remember my moment. I was in the kitchen, pickling, because that’s now something I do regularly for Central, and I was listening to the news. All around us communities were closing schools, and yet New York City had not followed suit. I didn’t understand why. We suspected that young children were unknowingly bringing Covid-19 home to the most at-risk. Why were we slow in shutting down the schools? Then I learned something I surely knew in the back of my mind. 30 million children in America rely on free or subsidized meals at school.2 I was aware that food insecure families could get access to nutrition at school. However, I never imagined the scale of it, or truly thought about the ethics of it. And suddenly I realized the absurdity of the situation. We could either close schools and starve children or keep schools open and continue to spread this disease to vulnerable populations. I became overwhelmed with fury and shame. That is not a choice we should have to face in America in 2020. That was when I gained half of my prophetic perspective. I saw a deep structural failing of my community; one I had accepted as normal, but now saw was anything but. How could a country of our wealth, resourcefulness, and greatness have 30 million food insecure children?3 And that was before the pandemic? That number is higher today.4 It is a fact that embarrasses me as an American and as a Jew. When some families during the lockdown stocked pantries and freezers full of food “just in case,” and other families wondered how they would feed their children without the school system, our normal is deeply abnormal.
Perhaps you gained part of the prophetic perspective, your ability to see a societal failure, in a different moment, when we turned our eyes to our healthcare system. Accounts from medical workers shocked us these past months. We wondered how hospitals in the greatest city in the nation could sound like medical tents in war-torn regions.5 Dr. Brendan Carr, chair of emergency medicine for Mount Sinai Health System explained, “We essentially…built a health care system…with totally just-in-time supply chains because we value efficiency… and what just happened to us is we got caught out on that, and it became…clear that we weren’t ready for an unexpected bump in the night.”6 But shouldn’t we have been ready? We’ve known that allowing profitability to be the principal driver of our medical care created fragilities within the system. We’ve seen it in the diminishment of primary care,7 the chronic overcapacity in New York City hospitals,8 and critical shortages of basic necessary supplies and medicines.9 While these issues have impacted communities of color and the poor for decades,10 the clearest manifestation of the problem for all of us came during the pandemic when we couldn’t muster basic PPE for medical workers. We asked physicians and nurses to attend to pandemic patients without the proper means to protect them or their patients. We saw firsthand, something that has been true, to some degree, for decades but Covid-19 made plain. Penny pinching measures baked into our healthcare system save dollars but cost lives.11 We are forced to ask, is that return on investment worthwhile? Dr. Carr continued to say that a return to business as usual would be unconscionable, but change is unlikely to occur without large-scale reimbursement reforms. 12 When Judaism teaches human life is invaluable,13 but our healthcare system demands that caring for life be as cheap as possible, our normal is abnormal.
I know from our conversations together, that many of us gained the first half of the prophetic perspective when we focused on employment. It became clear that the safest way to work was at home. But for thousands of our neighbors this was not possible. These workers were labeled essential. Most of them were low wage workers with no real choice but to continue to face the danger of working onsite to eke out a living. And while we applauded them at 7pm from the safety of our homes, these essential-low-wage-workers died or were exposed to this pandemic at a rate that was disproportionate with the general population.14 We gained our prophetic perspective when we realized that we labeled these people essential but treated them as disposable. Physician at New York Presbyterian and Assistant Professor of Health Care Policy at Weil Cornell, Dr. Dhruv Khullar reflected, “Many of the people still getting infected are those who don’t have the luxury of distance—those who, by necessity or by trade, expose themselves and their families to the virus every day…Each morning, during the apex of the deadliest pandemic in a century, these men and women have been venturing out into the epicenter of disease… Many have paid with their health—some with their lives.”15 When low wage workers are forced to choose between a life sustaining paycheck in life threatening conditions or crippling poverty from the safety of home, our normal is abnormal.
There were many similar moments that forced us to see absurd and terrible aspects of our society with which we learned to live. Our reactions likely ran the gamut: sadness, shame, anger, and embarrassment. We must not hide from those emotions. Those are mighty tools of the prophetic perspective; tools that we can put to work.
We hear voices calling from every corner for us to reopen, start again, get back to business as usual. But we know now, that as we rebuild our city, the goal will have to be more than a return to normal. We must assume the second half of the prophetic perspective, the conviction that we can overcome our past failings.
The prophets all spoke about restoring Jerusalem, but that didn’t mean returning to the way things were. Before its destruction, Jerusalem was plagued with corrupt leaders and judges, widespread poverty, and habitual abuse of the needy. Reconstructing the old Jerusalem would have been a moral failure. Instead, the prophets took in all that had been broken and envisioned a city guided by justice, where poverty was banished, and where every soul lived with dignity. They provided a clear moral compass steering the way forward. Adopting the prophetic perspective, we can do the same. We simply must ask ourselves where our society was failing, what about our city was a source of moral embarrassment, who amongst our neighbors was forced to live without dignity? Then we begin the hard work of rebuilding in light of our past mistakes. We seize this opportunity that has been thrust upon us.
While some prophesy the death of New York, others are rebuilding their communities with prophetic perspective. Chefs Gabrielle Hamilton and David Nayfeld are reimagining the restaurant industry in order to make it more resilient and equitable for all its employees, suppliers, and patrons.16 National organizations like AARP and individual families who witnessed the devastation first hand, are trying to reform elder care and nursing homes to improve the lives of those aging and those attending to them.17 Our youth are also adopting the prophetic perspective. Teens from our community like Sydney Brown, Hannah Youngwood, Rachel Berman, Abby Berman, and Lila Stevens have been speaking out about climate change and adopting greener habits as they are fed up with witnessing the ecological devastation around us. We can all chose one area where we want to disrupt the old systems for the better. Remember, prophecy is already a part of you. As the great sage Hillel said of the Jewish people: if we are not prophets, we are the children of prophets.18
Where will you choose to focus, with an unflinching gaze and unrelenting spirit? As we emerge from our exile, we must restore our city using our prophetic perspective. While others might be trying to get back to normal, our Jewish response is to rebuild our home so that there is nothing normal about it.
Embolden us, Adonai, to walk the streets with prophet’s eyes. Let us not be crushed by the image of the city that lies before us. Let us not be trapped by narrow vision and rebuild the broken systems of yesterday. Let us transform our home into a new and unprecedented good; not only for ourselves, but for our neighbors and the strangers among us. As the prophet Isaiah wrote, “On that day, this song shall be sung in the land…Ours is a mighty city.”19
1Tanakh, Zechariah 8:5-6
2“National School Lunch Program.” USDA ERS - National School Lunch Program, August 20, 2019.
3 Turner, Cory. “‘Children Are Going Hungry’: Why Schools Are Struggling To Feed Students.” NPR. NPR, September 8, 2020.
4Fisher, Nicole. “Number of Food Insecure Households More Than Doubles As Food Banks Struggle.” Forbes, May 26, 2020.
5Ouyang, Helen. “I’m an E.R. Doctor in New York. None of Us Will Ever Be the Same.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 14, 2020.
6Silva, Daniella. “Coronavirus Exposes Major Flaws in Health Care Systems, Experts Say.” NBCNew, April 29, 2020.
7Silva, “Coronavirus Exposes Major Flaws in Health Care Systems, Experts Say.” NBCNew, April 29, 2020.
8Robinson, David. Why NY hospital closures, cutbacks made COVID-19 pandemic worse.” Record Online — Times Herald Record, April 10, 2020.
9Mazer-Amirshahi, Maryann, and Erin Fox. “Saline Shortages—Many Causes, No Simple Solution: NEJM.” New England Journal of Medicine, April 19, 2018. Fox, Erin R., Valerie Jensen, and Burgunda V. Sweet. “Drug Shortages: A Complex Health Care Crisis.” Mayo Clinic, 2014. Ventola, C. Lee. “The drug shortage crisis in the United States: causes, impact, and management strategies.” P & T: a peer-reviewed journal for formulary management vol. 36, 11 (2011): 740-57.
10Robinson, “Why NY hospital closures, cutbacks made COVID-19 pandemic worse.” Times Herald Record, April 10, 2020. Williams, David R. “Why Discrimation is a Health Issue.” Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, October 24, 2017.
11Hua, Miao Jenny. “Empty Beds and Mounting Deaths: Covid-19 and U.S. Healthcare’s Systemic Failures.” Somatosphere, July 14, 2020.
12 Silva, Daniella. “Coronavirus Exposes Major Flaws in Health Care System, Experts Say.” NBCNews.com. NBCUniversal News Group, April 29, 2020.
13Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5
14Kinder, Molly, and Martha Ross. “Reopening America: Low-Wage Workers Have Suffered Badly from COVID-19 so Policymakers Should Focus on Equity.” Brookings. Brookings, June 24, 2020. Thoerbecke, Catherine. “‘Heroes or Hostages?’: Communities of Color Bear the Burden of Essential Work in Coronavirus Crisis.” ABC News. ABC News Network, May 22, 2020.
15Khullar, Dhruv. “The Essential Workers Filling New York’s Coronavirus Wards.” The New Yorker, May 1, 2020.
16Rosner, Helen. “What It Will Take for Restaurants to Survive.” The New Yorker, May 6, 2020. Hamilton, Gabrielle. “My Restaurant was My Life for 20 Years. Does the World Need it Anymore?” New York Times, April 23, 2020. Nayfeld, David. “I’m a San Francisco Restaurant Owner Who Will Probably Return My Government-Relief Loan. Here’s Why and What Really Needs to Happen to Save Our Industry.” Business Insider. Business Insider, May 7, 2020. Nayfeld, David. “How Restaurants May Change after the Pandemic.” SFChronicle.com. San Francisco Chronicle, August 24, 2020.
17Schulson, Michael. “Coronavirus is renewing a call to abolish nursing homes.” Quartz, June 25, 2020. Grabowski, David C. “Strengthening Nursing Home Policy for the Postpandemic World: How Can We Improve Residents’ Health Outcomes and Experiences?” Strengthening Nursing Home Policy for the Postpandemic World | Commonwealth Fund, August 20, 2020. Jenkin, Jo Ann. “AARP is Fighting the Coronavirus Crisis in Nursing Homes by Demanding More Transparency.” AARP, April 24, 2020. Eaton, Joe. “Reimagining the Nursing Home Industry After the Coronavirus: Experts hope the pandemic will inspire change.” AARP, June 8, 2020.
18Talmud Bavli, Pesachim 66a.
19Tanakh, Isaiah 26:1.
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