Forewarning of the pandemic came to our family with a festive package dropped at the door by a neighbor. Such packages are a common part of the celebration of Purim, when we remember the miraculous undoing of a genocidal decree against the Jews of Persia. But in Sydney, where we live, common courtesy is rare, and common kindness is—let us say—even rarer. “Please let us know if you need anything,” said the note with the package. “Anything that is understocked at the shops—soap, toilet paper, medicines.” We had never seen this neighbor before or even spoken to her. We were mystified; something was awry.
We are a family of three generations living in my parents’ home in Sydney. I moved back here just before the virus struck, after thirty years in the United States. “What are you waiting for?” my daughter asked and asked, until I capitulated. I left behind a son at Johns Hopkins University, and he began a barrage of exhortations that ended in our three generations isolating together in my parents’ home a few days after Purim. That was three weeks ago from the time I’m writing this. It is hard now to believe we once lived another way. And it is even harder to resist thinking that we may never get out of this way of living. My parents are healthy but old, and the time between now and a cure or vaccine is indefinite.
We are isolated in the house, my parents, my daughter, and I. No one comes in, and we don’t go where other people are. If we choose to live with one another, we can only be with one another. If my daughter or I want to see anyone else, we cannot come back home until this virus ends. That is the choice: either the family or everyone else, not both. The price we pay for being together is being separated from the rest of the world.
My father, who always prayed twice daily with his community at synagogue, came home to pray alone. Prayer alone is blessed, but wherever ten are assembled in a minyan, the Divine Presence dwells among them (Avot 3:6), in the miniature sanctuary in the places where Jews have been exiled (Ezekiel 11:16). My father is nearly ninety. The very place where religious Jews like my father find solace became a prime source of transmission of the virus. My father’s father put on prayer garments in the Nazi camps. “But this is different,” my father said. “Here we have a choice to live, and life comes first.”
It dwells among us in secret, this virus, like a ghost. Many with the disease have no symptoms and can pass it to others unknowing, so that one moment we are dancing, the next we cough, the next we choke and fall. Life has slid along a predictable course this century. The century before saw a reduction of death in childbirth and childhood diseases, the taming of heart disease, cures for cancer, even a decline in car fatalities. The blessing of old age is widely shared; since 1900, human life expectancy on Earth has more than doubled. Doctors and clean water keep us alive an ever longer time. And into a world built on the certainty of a limitlessly increasing lifespan the new coronavirus imposes uncertainty. It whips through us and we are astonished: the moment before, we believed we were masters over nature. And now, doctors who have fought successfully to keep us alive are impotent; we are left to fight the disease alone, to prescribe our own medicine, that is, to keep away from one another. Who knows who hides the disease and breathes it to us?