Dvar Torah: From Eyam 1666 to Temple Fortune in 2020

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 March 2020

It sometimes falls on a Minister of Religion to be the bearer of bad or difficult news.

Rarely has this more been the case than it was for William Mompesson, the newly appointed rector of the small Derbyshire village of Eyam in the late Spring of 1666.

The previous summer, a bale of fabric had arrived in the town, sent by a London merchant to the village tailor, Alexander Hadfield.  Unknown to the apprentice who opened the bale, George Viccars, within it were fleas, bringing from London the plague.  Viccars was the first in the village to die.  And after a short lull, the plague spread through the community in the Spring of 1666.

In June, Mompesson, after conferring with his predecessor Thomas Stanley, told his parishioners what needed to happen:  the dead of the village would be buried quickly, without ceremony; there would be no public gatherings, the church would close; and most extraordinary of all, the village would place itself in voluntary quarantine.  To prevent the plague spreading to nearby towns – to Sheffield in particular – the village would be closed, no one coming in or out.

Reluctantly, the community agreed.  The villagers stayed in Eyam, together with the plague.  21 died in June, 56 in July, 78 in August before totals began to drop … In total 260 of the village’s estimated 700 inhabitants died.

But through their actions it is thought that thousands of lives may have been saved.

Covid 19 is no Black Death; 21st Century London is not the village of Eyam in 1666.  And the sacrifices that are being asked of us are nothing like those of the villagers in that terrible summer.

But all of us will be asked to make decisions over the coming months.
As institutions, we will make small decisions and large.  Small decisions like whether to have challah on Friday night (not for now).  Larger ones like whether to hold, or not hold, events including precious ones like our Weekend Away.

As individuals, we may face the decision to self-isolate, possibly to not come to the synagogue we love to protect ourselves or others.

For all of us, potentially, if things progress as they seem, the decision will come whether to respond to instructions around social distancing.

Like the villagers of Eyam we will never know the direct outcomes from these choices – it is impossible to prove these causal chains.  So on one level we will never know whether the decisions we make are the right ones.  Except that we do know, just as they knew, that by acting, by making choices we are doing the right thing.  Perhaps not the easy thing but the right thing.  A small but real contribution, disrupting our lives but potentially profoundly altering for the better the outcomes for others.

As we grapple with our choices, the example of Eyam is an important one to remember –

Through their choice we can see that to act, to make even the most challenging of choices is a model of strength and of selflessness.  As Mompesson recognised, there is no strength in ignoring the situation or our responsibilities.

Over the weeks ahead may we find it in ourselves to make difficult decisions for the wellbeing of others, and when we waver may we remember that others have made far more difficult choices than those we are being asked to make.