Track and Trace: A Guide To Life?

As I sit to write this, in the middle of August, the last fully communal event I remember was hearing the Megillah over Purim. 

In March, our community, Cockfosters & N. Southgate United Synagogue, of nearly 1,100 members, with the exception of the last few weeks, has been maintaining its community life in virtually-shared silos of electronic connectivity.

So many words have become over-used during these weeks: unprecedented, unbelievable, strange, exhausting.

There is no question that all of these are true, but the beauty of Judaism – and the most reassuring sentiment – is encapsulated in a single verse in the Book of Ecclesiastes (1:9) 

מַה־שֶּֽׁהָיָה֙ ה֣וּא שֶׁיִּהְיֶ֔ה 

וּמַה־שֶׁנַּֽעֲשָׂ֔ה ה֖וּא שֶׁיֵּעָשֶׂ֑ה 

וְאֵ֥ין כָּל־חָדָ֖שׁ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּֽׁמֶשׁ׃

That which has been, it is that which shall be; 

and that which has been done is that which shall be done: 

and there is nothing new under the sun.

We think we have heard it before and many people quote the second part of this verse, but what we often don’t realise is that it is only PART of the statement.

“What has already happened will happen again; what has already been done will be done again, and there is nothing new under the sun.”

We can understand this in two ways:

  1. Everything has been tried and there are no new solutions

or:

  1. Whatever we did in the past, we are still here now; and so we must have confidence that we will be here in the future as well.

One of the paths being adopted globally to try to overcome the infection rates of this coronavirus pandemic is being variously entitled ‘Track & Trace’. It is being presented as a socio-medical approach: figure out if you have caught the virus, list the people you have most frequently interacted with since just before or after discovering that you have it, and then ask all of those people to isolate. Thereby we are hoping to ensure that they would pass on the virus – assuming that they have caught it – to as few other people as possible.

I would like to propose that, in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah and the New Year ahead of us, ‘Track & Trace’ isn’t a response to a pandemic.

It is, and always has been, the correct Jewish response to life itself and the latest terminology for what we inherently understand at this time of year. All of Jewish literature is replete with Track & Trace language; often hiding in plain sight.

The cautionary tale of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, there lies one of the most spectacular phrases in the Torah. In the delicate moments between Cain’s offering being rejected by God and the catastrophic response of Abel’s murder by his brother, God introduces Cain to Track & Trace

Cain is crestfallen. God literally asks him, “Why has your face fallen?” (Genesis 4:6) and acknowledges the precariousness of his situation. Emotion is welling up inside of him and he faces an ultimate choice. God continues: “Surely, if you do right, there is uplift. But if you do not do right sin couches at the door; its urge is toward you, yet you can be its master.”

Track & Trace. Understand what you are experiencing. Acknowledge the moment. Know that there will be direct consequences that hinge on your very next move, and that the implications of those actions will define you irreversibly.

Cain cannot and will not engage with these emotions and, as we know, his next action is shocking. But he was warned. By God Himself!

The second paragraph of our central declaration of faith – the Shema Yisrael prayer – contains a broad correlation between our behaviour and the prosperity and success of our agricultural and spiritual efforts. Do well, keep dedicated to God and His guiding principles and rain will fall when it should and we will be protected.

If not, there will be implications and consequences to our actions, and sin always crouches at the door. Track & Trace.

The Jewish year itself has a majesty and a metronomic harmony to it that also speaks of tracking and tracing its graceful movement. Starting from any festival in the year, there is a meandering narrative that tracks and traces our Jewish story in a series of perpetual moments that speak of the relationships between us and our Creator; between us and our fellow Jews, between us and our families and between us and the world at large.

I find the connection between the months very instructive. From the summer months of Tammuz and Av – re-experiencing the anguish of the Destruction of the Temple – through the contemplation and anticipation of the month of Elul, leading up to the crescendo of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, to the sublime experience of Sukkot, as the ultimate symphony of Track & Trace.

We fell short once. We did it often. We lost our way.

But we have factored in time to reflect, to heal, to determine a way forward and the daily sound of the Shofar for a whole month of Elul helps to sharpen our focus.

We become acutely aware of the passage of time and its power to create urgency as well as allow us to resolve to redouble our efforts to do better.

We come to the High Holy Days with a small sense of what we would like for the coming year. We do our best to look forward with hope and optimism that the future is as yet unwritten and it is beckoning us to write it well.

If we have tracked our experiences and we have traced them to the best of ourselves and the bits we are looking to do better, then the process may not be perfect, but it is our very best effort.

And we should be proud of our achievements to date and grateful for the blessing of time to come to make our Creator proud of what we can still achieve.

- September 7th 2020

About the Author

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Rabbi Daniel Epstein Rabbi Daniel Epstein is one half of the rabbinic duo at Cockfosters & N Southgate United Synagogue in North London. Rabbi Epstein is married to Ilana, the founder of Jewish Futures’ organisation Ta’am. He is also a governor at the JFS school in London and a believer that a true sense of self-worth is the key to all things. 

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Track and Trace: A Guide To Life?

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