As everyone is aware, the COVID-19 Pandemic is still ongoing and we are experiencing another spike of cases. I learned from my colleague at Bayshore Hospital that the Environmental Services Manager plays a critical role in protecting both patients and employees. His staff performs the arduous tasks of wiping down beds, cleaning bathrooms, and decontaminating hospital equipment. They are the unnoticed sinews of a well-functioning hospital… the critical first line of defense against infection. But in the process, those doing the cleaning have perhaps the highest risk of exposure in the hospital. They also earn among the hospital’s lowest salaries. Who would want such a job?
Well, it turns out that there are those who are paid and others who volunteer. Why do they volunteer? Some have shared that they didn’t hesitate to join the team. One said, “I wanted to help save somebody’s life, the same way all the nurses and doctors are saving people’s lives.” “Everyone is united right now. Everyone plays an important role.”
The members of the hospital’s environmental team are among the unsung heroes in this pandemic. Their work goes largely unnoticed. They are underappreciated and underpaid, yet theirs is among the most important work of all.
Its often the case those doing the seemingly smallest and least important tasks are actually making the greatest impact. That is a lesson that is driven home to us in this week’s Torah portion, Behar (Leviticus 25:1-26:2). The portion opens with God speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, instructing the Israelites to observe shmitta, the Sabbatical year. Every seven years we are required to let the land lie fallow. Shmitta reminds us that the land belongs to God, not to us. It is a gift on loan to us on condition that we are good stewards who protect it and do not over-use it, and that we use the land to benefit others, such as the poor, and not just ourselves.
Centuries of commentators have asked the question, mah inyan shittah etzel har sinai? What does shmitta have to do with Mount Sinai? Why are we told that this specific mitzvah was given at Mount Sinai. Weren’t all the mitzvot given at Sinai? Rabbi Harold Kushner offers this explanation: “Just as Sinai was the smallest of mountains, but the words spoken there changed the world, so the people Israel, the smallest of the nations, present a vision of social justice that has the power to change the world.”
Yes, the smallest thing, and the seemingly smallest, least significant person, can change the world. We find this lesson in the psalms as well, in a verse we recite every holiday and Rosh Chodesh as part of Hallel: Even ma’asu ha-bonim haytah l’rosh pinah — “The stone that the builder rejected has become the chief cornerstone.”
In struggling to survive this pandemic, we have experienced the power of small things. The virus itself is so small it cannot be seen, and so it turns out that the best defenses against the virus are also the smallest, simplest acts: washing one’s hands, wearing a mask, standing 6-12 feet away from others, speaking softly instead of loudly. Not singing in close proximity to others. And it is also the smallest, simplest things that have allowed us to survive our quarantines mentally and emotionally: taking walks, listening to music, playing a funny video clip. We find inner peace and joy by noticing the smallest things around us as well: a new flower, the song of birds, the feel of the sun on our skin as the air finally begins to warm.
But nowhere is the lesson of the smallness of Sinai – of the discarded stone becoming the cornerstone – ring more true than in the lives of this moment’s many unsung heroes.
They are the cashiers and stockers, the cooks and waiters, the delivery drivers, the maintenance and custodial staff, transit workers, nurses, therapists, medical techs and lab workers, day-care workers, and let us not forget the housekeepers, farmworkers and meat processors, many of whom are immigrants and undocumented aliens. Our nation often acts as if we do not want them here. Covid-19 has reminded us we cannot live without them. Every single day those in these roles and many others are out there risking their lives, making sure we can eat, stay physically and mentally healthy, and even be entertained so that we can survive.
We tend to overlook people in these roles or even view them with condescension. Now they turn out to be among those we need to rely upon most for our sanity and our very lives. We are learning to appreciate just how important they are, and how much they deserve not just our gratitude, but to be held in high regard, respected and honored for who they are and what they do, and the critical role they play in our society collectively and in our individual lives.
Rabbi Jack Riemer writes that the main lesson we should learn from the pandemic is to appreciate those who we might otherwise forget. In his words:
“If there is anything that we ought to learn from this ordeal that we have been through, I believe that it is our obligation, not only to honor the scientists and the epidemiologists and the leaders of government—-important as they are—-but that it is our task to honor the manual laborers, the people whom no one seems to pay any attention to—for they too played a vital and an indispensable role in getting us through this ordeal.”
Think of all the unsung heroes that have touched your life. The ones you know personally. The ones you see, but you don’t know their names. The ones that you never see, never meet but you know that they are there. Keep them in your prayers. When you see them, let them know how much you appreciate them. When the time comes that they have needs, stand up for them. We need to let them know that we value them as not the least, but the most important part of our society. Not just during the pandemic, but ever after as well.