Who is essential?


Passing the Baptist church on College Avenue in Somerville, I saw that their events board was dedicated to thanking essential workers for their labors.

Who is essential? Essential to what? Essential to whom?

Essential to the human life:

Doctors, for the most part, are essential. Researchers, medical staff and health care support staff are also essential. They are essential to care for those sickened by Covid-19. Without health care, people die.

Farm workers, delivery personnel, food manufacture and packaging personnel, retail food workers are essential. Without food, the people die.

The workers who keep our infrastructure going, such as cable and electrical workers, road repair crews, construction and repair crews are essential. Without communication, roads, and shelter for people and businesses, the economy fails. When an economy fails, people cannot get food. People die.

Teachers and childcare are essential. Children are tended by paid teachers and childcare workers or they are tended by the unpaid labor of their (mostly mothers) and other relatives. Women in the work force are disproportionally taking the burden of doing both their paid work and the unpaid work of childcare. Without safe conditions for children, children fail the thrive or die.

Elected officials are tasked with using our tax payments to support public health and keep food, shelter, communication, and childcare going during a pandemic.

How well is that going? 

We are all essential to those who love us.

In 2020, it is easier to see:

  • How vital it is that hospitals have ventilators
  • How many people labor to keep food stocked in a grocery store
  • How much we depend on our internet, phones and communications
  • How much we need our buildings operating safely
  • How many hours adults spend tending the next generation
  • How much the government is doing or not doing to maintain public health and support economic stability.

I am not confident that any of these essential services are a given. I may lose access to health care, food, communications, or shelter at any time. Children are vulnerable to everything I am, and more so. The government… (sigh)

Sukkot, in the time of Covid-19

sukkahJews spend the ten-day period of Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur contemplating the fragility of life. Then we are reminded of the fragility of agrarian life at Sukkot, less than a week later.

During Sukkot, we recall that the harvest is life-giving. We celebrate. We also remind ourselves, communally, that harvests are dependent on rain, and sun, and labor. They are all essential, and humans provide only one of those!

On Sukkot, we eat and sleep in a fragile hut. It is temporary. It does not have a roof to keep out the rain. The walls do not keep out the wind or the rain.

This year, Sukkot began on the evening of October 2, and runs through sunset on October 9. The first two days and the last two days are festivals that are observed by refraining from work for some Jews. Others hold services on the first and last days. The days in between are observed by eating and sleeping in the temporary structure, called a Sukkah.

This all comes from an ancient source, but even today, all food is dependent on the rains coming at the right time, in the right amounts. That is essential. No matter how hard farm workers work, if there is no water, there is no harvest.

In 2020, we do not have rain falling at the right time. Not in the northeast. Not on the west coast. There is flooding in Africa. We, individually, are not in control of any of this. At least, not directly. For all the advances of science, human life on earth is fragile. It always has been. It always will be.

An aside: Why are Jewish holidays so long?

I often get questions about why Jews have “so many” holidays or why they are “so long.” Here is an answer: There are three holidays that are eight days long because they were established as pilgrimage times, and Jews needed days to get to the Temple in Jerusalem and return.

Judaism is the oldest of the Abrahamic religions. The ancient Jews came to Jerusalem from throughout the Near East for religious observance, which included animal sacrifice in the time of the Temple, more than 2000 years ago.

Modern observance has replaced sacrifices with a prayer service that replicates the parts of the ancient rites, but in words and intentions, rather than physical actions. Although animal sacrifice is long gone, the idea of pilgrimage persists in the Abrahamic faiths.

  • Christians will recall that Jesus came to Jerusalem for Pesach (Passover), which is another of the pilgrimage holidays. There was an influx of Jews from all over the region there for this reason. There money changers, and other tables, set up around town to accommodate the pilgrims coming to bring sacrifices to the Temple.

The tradition of pilgrimage is still practiced by Christians. Some go to holy sites for healing, mediated by saints. Some go to see holy cities, such as Jerusalem and Ephesus, or places where saints lived, or long-standing landmark churches such as Rome or Canterbury.

  • Muslims hold an annual pilgrimage, which all Muslims attend — once in a lifetime — if they can. The rituals around the Haj is deeply important, and central to Muslim life.

The third eight-day holiday comes at another harvest season, for Shavuot. This falls roughly in June on the modern calendar. In ancient times, there were sacrifices in Jerusalem, now there are services to replace that.

Hanukah being eight days long has nothing to do with a pilgrimage. It is a historic holiday that is not Biblical. It gets a lot of attention only because it falls around Christmas.


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