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וַיִּישֶׂם בָּֽאָרוֹן בְּמִצְרָֽיִם

Va'yisem ba'aron bemitzraim

And they put Joseph in a coffin in Egypt.

Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, reaches its conclusion. The book’s final words, describing the death of Joseph, are a doom-laden prophecy for what lies ahead for his family. Egypt, a  life-saving haven for Joseph’s starving family stricken by famine in Canaan, will become a place of suffering and death for them when the old Pharaoh dies and the Israelites become enslaved.

Who could have foreseen such an unfolding of events?

What could have prepared them for the restriction and anguish that lie ahead?

Our Torah, the timeless teaching of our ancestors, speaks to us across the millenia with uncanny resonance. On this Shabbat, as we cross the threshold of 2020 into the secular New Year, the concluding words of the Book of Bereishit sound to our ears like a doom-laden prophecy for what lies ahead for us too.

The rate of new cases for Covid and the numbers of Covid patients battling the virus in our hospitals has exceeded the numbers back in March and April. Redbridge and Essex are amongst the worst affected areas across the country. The NHS is close to breaking point. And we are not yet experiencing the increase in transmission that is an inevitable consequence of the mingling over Christmas.

Who could have foreseen such an unfolding of events?

What could have prepared us for the restriction and anguish that lie ahead?

Most of us have friends or family members who have had Covid, who are battling Covid as we speak or, tragically, have died from Covid. Sadly, this community lost 8 members to Covid during the first wave, amidst the 22 deaths we had from March to May, and we have lost 4 members to Covid in the past 3 weeks. During the first wave of the pandemic the Jewish death rate in Britain between March and May was twice the usual level for that time of year. One of the main reasons for this shocking statistic is because we are a close-knit community; we love socialising with each other – in our families and as a community. 2 in 5 Jews in the UK said they had been to a bar mitzvah, wedding, large communal gathering or Purim celebration in February or March, (you could include ‘shiva’ in this list too), according to the data just released by the JPR, the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. You can read the full story at https://www.thejc.com/comment/columnists/our-way-of-life-put-us-in-danger-from-the-virus-1.510124?highlight=jonathan+boyd. As Jonathan Boyd, Executive Director of the JPR points out, at such events people are packed tightly indoors, sharing food, hugging, kissing and dancing. An ideal breeding ground for the spreading the virus, and then passing it on to elderly family members at home.

וַיִּישֶׂם בָּֽאָרוֹן בְּמִצְרָֽיִם Va'yisem ba'aron bemitzraim

And they put Joseph in a coffin in Egypt.

The word Aron, as you may recognise, is also the word for the Aron Kodesh, the Holy Ark, which houses the stone tablets in the desert Mishkan, and the Torah scrolls in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and in our synagogues today. The family of Jacob, after 430 years of bondage in Egypt, are liberated from slavery and begin their journey to receive Torah on Mount Sinai, the teaching that will instruct the People in how to live a good and just life, how to live in community with each other and with the wider world, and how to live in relationship with God.

עֵץ־חַיִּים הִיא לַמַּחֲזִקִים בָּהּ

Eits chayyim hi la-machazikim bah, It is a tree of life to all who grasp it.

The Aron is both a coffin and a home for Instruction; a symbol of death and a symbol of life.

On this Shabbat, as we cross the threshold of 2020 into the secular New Year of 2021, this moment itself holds both life and death together. We are not yet experiencing the increase in Covid cases that is an inevitable consequence of the mingling over Christmas. At the same time, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine has been approved for use and is being rolled out in a huge acceleration of the vaccination programme from Monday. The tremendous effort of scientists harnessing science, a modern-day Torah, to combat the pandemic, in an amazing team collaboration with many other bodies and institutions, means that protection from the virus is within reach for us all.

‘Choose life,’ instructs the Torah. It is incumbent on every one of us to have the vaccination, to take every precaution to reduce the risk of transmission: stay home wherever possible; do not mingle with other households; wear a mask; maintain social distancing; wash hands frequently.

Judaism doesn’t hold that our fate is determined by forces beyond our control. Our Torah teaches that people must take their destiny into their own hands, denying the sense of personal helplessness that leads to hopelessness. In the words of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, ‘To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair.’

On this first Shabbat of 2021, let each one of us ensure that we do what is within our power to make the months ahead, not an Aron/coffin, but an Aron, a Holy Ark for life, for safety, and for continuing kindness, compassion and strengthening of community.

Rabbi Lisa