By Rabbi Jonathan Biatch
This past weekend, I was watching a new series on one of the streaming services when one element of this program immediately caught my eye, and my tongue got caught in my throat instantly.
A young man was meeting the father of his love interest for the first time, which was an awkward moment, to be sure. But over the 24 minutes of the episode, which was about eight hours in the context of the program, the younger and older man shared several experiences and conversations, showing us viewers that a loving relationship was growing. When the two men parted at the end of the encounter, the younger reached out to shake the hand of the older as a sign of sincere connection. And at that moment, I realized that I had not shaken the hand or hugged someone outside my family in more than two months.
A tear formed in my eye, and a lump formed in my throat, and I realized that I might not have the pleasure of touching someone else—my congregants, my siblings, my friends, and other family members—for the foreseeable future.
Yes, for the sake of life and those who are living, we need to avoid even these basic and, as of now, unfulfilled human needs. However, knowing that intellectually doesn’t lessen the pain or the disappointment, or the longing that we each may feel when we want to…but, we can’t reach out and touch someone.
Sorry, saying “namaste” and taking a brief bow may be polite and politically correct these days, but that doesn’t do it for me.
Waving a hello or farewell, and saying those things with our eyes behind the mask, can feel unfulfilling and come across as insincere. There is a distance created by this physical barrier that is blocking our usual visual cues during personal interactions, cues that enhance our interpersonal dialogue. Does my neighbor know I am smiling behind this mask, might they think I’m hiding some less friendly expression, or do they suspect me of unspoken motives?
Look, Jews are a touching group of people, who love to hug, kiss, embrace (all of life, for that matter), and engage with each other in the ongoing and daily acts of repairing our world. This pattern was somehow set within our ethos across the generations of our people. I mourn these moments when the extent of our touch is so limited. I look forward to the day when we can return to the embrace of all those whom I have been in contact with in the past, and who will, hopefully, in the future, embrace me once again.
So we dream, remember, yearn, plan, and push ourselves toward the future, for a time when the pandemic subsides, and we can return to our ways of loving humanity.
May it come speedily in our day.
Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, DD, MAHL earned a BA from California State University, Northridge, in radio-television broadcast management and then participated in a Jewish students’ institute and worked as a television production assistant in Israel. He earned a master’s degree in Jewish communal service from Brandeis University and worked for seven years at Jewish Federations in Buffalo, St. Louis, and Houston. He then entered the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving his master’s degree in Hebrew letters in 1991 and rabbinic ordination in 1992. Rabbi Biatch served pulpits in Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Alexandria, Virginia, and in Glendale, California, before joining Temple Beth El in 2005.