Wonderful Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld, the President of Hebrew College, has noted that the term social distancing fails to capture the quality of caring and kindness that is motivating it, in this age of coronavirus. In light of the changing environment, I have been in contemplation of the phrase כל ישראל ערבין זה לזה — All Gd-strugglers are responsible, one to another (Ritva on Rosh Hashanah 29a).
The letters ערב in this form refer to responsibility, and indeed the Gemara includes a baraita taught by Ahava, son of Rabbi Zeira, saying that in most cases, one can say a blessing on another’s behalf. The commentary from the Ritva (Rabbi Yom Tov ben Avraham Asevilli) specifies that this is so, because we are responsible to one another. If I can take action to preserve your holiness, it’s a blessing for the both of us.
As we navigate the pandemic-tinged landscape, we are called upon to think not just about our own risk but about the risk we might pose to others, some of whose vulnerabilities we may not be able to detect. Thus we enact our responsibility, our ערבות, by thinking of how our actions might affect others’ well-being.
The letters ערב can also carry a meaning of mixing. In a time when many are feeling insecure and unsettled, we seek to connect with others for support around our shared experience. We want to be held in community, to mix our hearts and thoughts with others’. We want to feel less alone. Yet we are obligated by the responsibility that we hold for one another — to maintain, at least physically, a caring distance. Our desire to mix is held in check. We feel mixed up.
Vocalize it another way and add just one letter and you have ערוב, the makeshift border that some traditional communities reinforce each week before Shabbat, to make their space a shared space. The ערוב delineates where we are, together, making a neighborhood a home both ritually and emotionally. It is built and tended by human hands for the purpose of binding communities together.
Vocalized yet another way, ערב means evening, or to bring on evening. Each night we say a beautiful prayer praising Gd’s skill for creating time just so, for keeping the holy clock wound just right, so that the moon and the stars make their appearance when they are needed, and stay the right length of time. The night sky becomes a blanket to hold us in the dark hours.
In this darkening hour, I pray there may also be an even-ing. May those who are upset speak in an even tone, and those who are ill return to an even keel. May we strike an even balance between panicking and being cavalier. May we all see that even the poor and even the sick and even the lonely and even the frightened are within our ערוב and must be cared for with all our hearts.