The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States can be dated in many ways. The first confirmed case was Jan. 21, 2020. In Jewish communities, the Purim holiday, that year observed starting March 9, was a dividing line between our old lives and our new ones. For many, everything became real on March 11, when travel shut down, Tom Hanks tested positive and the NBA suspended its season.
But there’s another marker baked into Jewish tradition that hasn’t been discussed—and it provides a perfect opportunity for commemorating the earth-shattering change that we have all experienced.
On that first Shabbat after everything shut down, as synagogues switched to Zoom or held no services at all, we read Parashat Ki Tisa, the Torah portion in which G-d gives Moses the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, while down below the Israelites, fearing that he will not return, turn to idol worship. In the seventh and final section of the Torah portion, Moses dons a masveh—a veil or mask—to ease the anxiety felt by peers awed by his “radiant” visage.
Recently, we read Ki Tisa again, marking the liturgical two-year anniversary of the shutdowns.
Liturgy gives Jews a framework for processing and recalling our shared experiences. During the last two years, we have celebrated and grieved; we have moved and settled; we have had good moments and others perhaps we wish could take back. And we know that even as the pandemic appears to wind down, its long-term social effects are here to stay.
So last spring, the two of us—a layperson and a rabbi—came together to discuss an idea brought by a close reading of the seventh aliyah of Ki Tisa. We saw that Moses’ decision to don a mask had obvious resonance with pandemic life.
It still does, perhaps even more than ever. We have worn masks to protect ourselves, but also to protect others around us. We know that by wearing a mask, we create a climate in which we can safely and comfortably constitute a community.
We realized that our communities could remember the start of the pandemic—and all that it brought with it—through the resonant image of the mask that Moses wears. And we realized that the annual repetition of the Torah could make that commemoration a yearly event.
We call our ritual Aliyat ha-Masveh, the aliyah of the mask, in which a person who has displayed courage, compassion and care—the attributes of Moses and the frontline worker—could be honored.
For now, it probably makes sense for communities to honor pandemic heroes: health care workers, educators, policy makers. But over time, communities that adopt Aliyat ha-Masveh might find themselves recognizing other ways that their members take on responsibilities to ease the pain and anxiety of others. This would be a powerful result of the last two years of pain and fear.
This ritual doesn’t have to take place inside synagogues. This Shabbat is a perfect moment—one of several opportunities we will have together in the coming weeks—for Jews to take some time to reflect on the changes of the last two years. Where have we been surprised by our growth? Where have we become more ourselves? Where are we stronger? As we reflect, we can practice holding ourselves tenderly, with care, courage, and compassion—something that may have felt out of reach during this difficult time.
In the Torah’s telling, Moses puts the mask over his own face to show humility and concern for others. Although we will (hopefully) eventually set aside physical masks, we will always have chances to show our concern and care for others. Honoring this section of the Torah with a special aliyah can help us to do that.
Efrem Epstein & Rabbi Eric Woodward are contributing writers to JTA and Jlife magazine.