Pandemic Torah – Beginning to Reflect After a Year in Lock Down

What has this time wrought?  What does this world-wide human experience of the pandemic mean and how will it change us? 

The answers to these questions will surely evolve and reveal themselves over time.  Right now, we’re still in the storm. The sheer volume and intensity of what is yet unfolding prevents us from distilling lessons learned as wisely as we would like, though the sky is beginning to clear. 

It will take years to heal, years to understand.  In time, we will surely see more clearly, the Before, and the After.  A generation will understand themselves in reference to this time – swapping stories of losses mourned and celebrations delayed.  We will see clear lines of cause and effect in our economic systems, our personal and political history. 

But now – we are still in the jumble of unsorted relentless crisis, blind to what lies just a few months ahead.  Given that state, the questions, rather than answers, may be the most valuable and authentic place to reflect.  So here I offer, not a catalogue of lessons, but some thoughts about a few of the questions that the pandemic has raised for me over the past year.

What Is Important?

For some, the interruption of the pre-pandemic rat race has helped us to see the important parts of life we were mindlessly sacrificing before: regular family meals, time to exercise, hours wasted in rush hour traffic or work travel, time outside in the natural world. 

For each of us in different ways, our deprivation has helped us to appreciate anew the value of the things we once took for granted – hugs from family and friends, shared song, communal meals, celebrations, rituals of mourning, live, in-person music, worship, theater and sports.  Restaurants.  Toilet paper.  Play dates.  School. 

The pandemic has begun national conversations about subjects which were always important but never before so visible — “essential workers,” racial justice, and our broken healthcare system.  It has painfully demonstrated the importance of truth-based policy and politics. It has reminded us of the importance of child care and the relative un-importance of so much we have done without.   

Fancy weddings and Bar Mitzvah parties have given way to tiny modest ceremonies. Travel plans and summer camps have given way to stay-cations.  Each disruption has asked us to discern again and again – what is important? 

And through it all, families who lost loved ones have been reminded through heart-rending grief that the time we have with one another is, of course, the most important thing of all.

What Is Possible?

If you had asked me in 2019 whether I thought I could ever lead a decent service on zoom, I would have rated my chances 0 out of 10.  How small was my pre-pandemic sense of possibility!

The pandemic has forced us to adapt, finding connection through a screen, and sacred space in our living rooms, conducting our social lives in masks, and our work in crowded homes with tots and cats wandering through board meetings.  We’ve learned to cut our own hair, bake our own bread, and plant our own vegetables.

It’s been a year of testing, shaking hard-baked assumptions of how we must work and travel, of democracy’s inevitability.  As a massive socio-economic disruption, the pandemic has given us a rare peek at ourselves.  It has shown us that we can change more than we realized.  Statues can come down and people can awaken.  Global networks of scientists and manufacturers can cooperate to achieve miracles.  Neighbors can give each other hope with nothing more than simple, coordinated, public noise-making.   

The same volatility and uncertainty that make this moment so excruciating open a powerful window for transformation.  As George Packer wrote this year in The Atlantic, this could be America’s “plastic hour,” a “crucial moment” when deep transformation is suddenly possible. The pandemic is a painful disruption no one would choose, but now that it’s here, it may be giving us a chance, maybe a once in a century chance, to make big changes for the good – if only we can remember what’s important and believe in what is possible.

How Will We Emerge?

Throughout this year you may have heard me teach about the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the sage who spent 12 years in a cave.  When he first emerged, he was so full of judgement for his fellow human beings that his eyes shot fire and burned them to a crisp.  At that point, a heavenly voice proclaimed – “Have you come out to destroy my world?  Back to the cave!”  He then had to spend another full year in isolation, learning patience and compassion.  When he emerged a second time, his question was no longer, “What is wrong with these people?!” but rather, “How can I make things better?” With that kind of question, God let him live out the rest of his days without sending him back to the cave.

How will we emerge from this time?  Will we be brave enough and wise enough to let our experience change us for the better?  Will we remember what’s important and believe in what’s possible?  Or will we come out with wounds and anger asking the wrong questions and destroying our world?

I pray we will all find our ways to be better for this difficult time.  To let our suffering give rise to compassion, to let our losses give rise to generosity and gratitude. 

What and Who Sustains Us?

I am thankful beyond measure for the people in my family and my community who have been there for me and for one another during this year.  For the leaders making difficult decisions and offering inspiration.  For the givers who have been generous in a time of tremendous uncertainty.  For the worker bees behind the scenes delivering gifts and meals, running tech for services, editing blurbs and packing boxes.  I am thankful for those who have stepped up to connect in impossible circumstances, who have found ways to transform social justice in a time of virtual gatherings. 

As we look back on this year, I hope that we can catalogue not only what we have lost but also how we have survived.  Who have been our guiding lights and our strength?  What practices and people have kept us going?  What have we learned about our own resilience?

About a week ago, I had the blessing of receiving my first vaccine dose alongside my medically-vulnerable husband.  As we sat in the waiting area afterwards, I leaned over and weeped silently on his shoulder, feeling so aware of our mortality, so aware of our privilege, so aware of every blessing.  It was one of the most potent “shehecheyanu moments” of my life.  Even as I felt tremendous relief, I became aware of the magnitude of healing we all have yet ahead of us to integrate what we have lived through.  I pray that we can all be gentle and patient with one another as we walk that road of healing ahead. 

Baruch Atah Adonai Eloheynu Melech ha’olam, shehecheyanu, vekiyemanu, vehigeyanu lazman hazeh – Blessed are You Adonai our God, beyond within and surrounding us, who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this very moment.