Cities of Crumbling Walls: What The Talmud Can Teach Us About Living Through A Pandemic

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Avi Strausberg

For much of the last year, I have felt powerless against the pandemic and disconnected from friends and family. Despite my family’s efforts to keep ourselves and others safe by mask-wearing and social distancing, the impact of our actions feels negligible with respect to the many hundreds of thousands who have died from COVID in the last year.

In this way, the last twelve months have been a reckoning with powerlessness. I have had to accept that I don’t have the power to change the behavior of others. I have had to accept that I don’t have the power to enact legislation that would prevent the rapid spread of the disease. I have had to accept that the timeline for a return to a world without COVID—a world with schools, playdates, and meals with friends—is beyond my control. Instead, I have learned to focus on what is in my control: my ability to make this time a little bit more bearable for someone else.

In the pages of Masekhet Ta’anit, the Sages wrestle with a world eerily similar to our own. Plagued by life-threatening droughts, fire, and a pandemic, they attempt to answer the same question we have wrestled for the past year: How do we face a pandemic? How do we control that which feels out of our control? In the Mishnah of Masekhet Ta’anit, the Sages prescribe in detail exactly how many deaths define a plague and how one responds differently to a contained outbreak versus a contagion likely to spread to neighboring communities.[1] Through a schedule of communal fasts, soundings of the shofar, and the recitation of specific prayers, the Sages of the Mishnah offer a cohesive response to communal disaster. This is what we can do. This is how we can move God to change.

Yet in the midst of this tractate devoted to the halakhah, the laws of how to survive a pandemic, the Talmud takes a turn to tell us a series of stories about the greatness of ordinary individuals. As we continue page after page, we leave behind the rules to which the Sages are so committed and the laws about when and how often to fast, what verses to say, and who should sound the alarm. Instead, we focus on stories featuring individuals caring for others and being cared for.

These stories, rooted in acts of kindness and care, offer another answer to our question: How does one face a pandemic? What do we do when we feel like so much is beyond our control? Communal fasts, shofar blasts, and heartfelt prayers alone will not get us out of this. Rather, these actions taken on a communal and societal level must be paired with acts of kindness performed on an individual level. It is acts of hesed, acts of caring and kindness, that will get us through.

The Mishnah teaches that if a city is afflicted by crumbling walls and collapsing buildings, all of its inhabitants should fast and cry out because of the immediate danger that these present to the buildings’ inhabitants.[2] In Masekhet Ta’anit, we see that Rav Huna takes a different approach to crumbling walls. The Talmud teaches us that on every cloudy day, every day which might bring rain that would threaten the stability of already precarious walls, Rav Huna would go out in his golden carriage and command the owners of these walls to tear them down and rebuild them safely to avoid collapse. If the owners did not have the resources to rebuild their crumbling walls, Rav Huna, a man of significant financial means, would foot the bill himself and pay to rebuild the walls to ensure the safety of all of the city’s residents.[3] Strikingly, Rav Huna doesn’t wait for walls to crumble and then fast and cry out to God in response. Rather, Rav Huna proactively—and on a regular basis—surveys potential sources of danger to his neighbors and friends. He uses his privilege to find walls in danger of collapse and, if necessary, he rebuilds them himself in order to protect the vulnerable from injury. Rav Huna’s example teaches us that we too must take note of the crumbling walls in our society and then use whatever means available, through acts of generosity and personal responsibility, to tear down and repair the walls ourselves.

But, what if we don’t have the financial resources of Rav Huna? What if this is a story only meant to speak to leaders in power and people with wealth, and not those of us who lack golden carriages?

Soon after this story, the Talmud reports that there was a fire in the city of Drokart. While the entire city was impacted by a raging fire, we learn that Rav Huna’s neighborhood miraculously remains untouched. Initially, everyone assumed that his neighborhood was spared because of Rav Huna’s greatness, including the kindness he performed in tearing down and rebuilding crumbling walls. In the end, they learn it was in fact as a result of the actions of one anonymous woman that the neighborhood was saved.[4] What did this woman do that merited saving her whole neighborhood? She would heat her oven and then lend it to others to use, allowing them to benefit from its warmth and prepare their foods. This unnamed woman did not have a golden carriage or large sums of money to rebuild city walls, but she had a warm oven she was willing to lend as well as the generosity to share it with neighbors in need. In this story, it is not the rabbis’ prescribed fasts and prayers that save this neighborhood from a deadly fire; rather, it is the generosity of one woman, and her readiness to share with her neighbors, that spares the city.

Despite the rabbis’ emphasis on the importance of prayers and fasting in staving off contagious plagues and devastating droughts, the Sages admit through their own stories that the prayers and fasts of even the greatest rabbis don’t always bring salvation.[5] For the Sages, these stories do not negate the importance of the halakhic response to disaster. We need the prayers and the shofar blasts and fasts just as we need a coordinated widespread response to COVID that emphasizes social distancing, mask-wearing, and an efficient and just distribution of the vaccine. Yet, these measures alone will not save us. If we want to make it through this pandemic, we will need not only a coordinated response to disaster on a communal level; we also need acts of hesed, acts of kindness, on an individual level.

When there is so much beyond our control, it is easy to succumb to feelings of powerlessness. We either leave the saving of our world to those with the power to do so—or worse, we give into despair when we see that our leaders are ill-equipped to handle the task at hand. Masekhet Ta’anit teaches us that it’s not all beyond our control. We have exactly what we need right in our homes to make this pandemic more bearable for someone else and, in fact, we even might be the ones that can prevent disaster. Whether we have the means of Rav Huna to fix the crumbling walls or we are simply a person with a warm oven to lend, this is the time for small acts of hesed that can have far-reaching effects. What acts of hesed will you do? In which ways might you be powerful?

This piece was written with the support of the Sefaria-Maharat Writing Fellowship. 

[1] m. Ta’anit 3:5

[2] m. Ta’anit 3:4

[3] Ta’anit 20b

[4] Ta’anit 21b

[5] The tractate itself called “Ta’anit” (from the Hebrew word for “fast”) emphasizes the importance of fasting as a way of combating disaster.

Rabbi Avi Strausberg is the Director of National Learning Initiatives at Hadar and is based in Washington, D.C. She received her rabbinic ordination from Hebrew College in Boston and is a Wexner Graduate Fellow. Energized by engaging creatively with Jewish text, she maintains a Daf Yomi haiku blog in which she writes daily Talmudic haikus as well as a poetry blog Faith in the Fire inspired by the drashot of the Eish Kodesh.