We don’t know for sure how and when the current COVID-19 crisis will actually end. But as real conversations begin about reopening establishments and institutions, some contemplation is appropriate.
The world will probably sing a similar tune but on a different note, what my musician friends call a modulation, as we build a new civilization, on a higher plane than we’ve been before.
As some call for new attention to climate change, this, too, can be considered in a spiritual and communal context, making more permanent the “enhanced climate” with “cleaner air” - of understanding and selflessness - we have seen by so many, especially first responders, during this trying time.
When we do that we will not only feel better, we will BE better.
The unprecedented shuttering of synagogues and communal infrastructure, as mandated by the government and rabbinate, have caused prayer and Torah study to increase but simultaneously plunge without notice into a personal dimension never quite experienced before. Each individual or family had to create their own designated spiritual space.
As a result of this sudden social distancing and isolation, many of us now certainly know a lot we didn’t know before. At the very least, we know ourselves better, more deeply and are more aware of what we truly care about and who truly cares about us.
We will slowly return to normal – whatever that word will mean – at some point, but until then the opportunity for some very real introspection and closeness to our loved ones and to G-d as a result of even this experience is spiritually welcome and conducive.
As Noah in the times of the biblical flood, we too have in a sense built ourselves an ark over the past number of weeks. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of sacred memory, reminds us of the dual meaning of the Hebrew word “teivah”, or ark, to also mean “word”, namely the words of Torah and prayer. When the figurative storms and floods hit, we head for shelter in that ark, those “words” which provide us the refuge we need.
But when that flood ends and those torrential rains subside, we need to take the cue and “exit” the ark, or in this case, the “word”, and the comfort it was able to provide and “take it with us”. One can’t stay sheltered forever.
We need to go back out into our world and our routine, as it were, and get to rebuilding civilization. If we do know one thing, it is that the world we face will not be the same as before, in very real terms. Sure, the roads, buildings and other infrastructures survive, but we and our world are different and will remain so for a while.
Having done without so many previously perceived necessities for weeks or more, some things will now become all but obsolete. Relationships and priorities will reshuffle into a new order of priority.
Watching so many people pass so suddenly from among us will certainly give us pause, individually and collectively. Too many watched relatively healthy friends and relatives felled by Corona, suddenly unable to even breathe properly and then just literally taken from us in a matter of days.
King David concludes the Book of Psalms (150:6) proclaiming “May every soul praise the L-rd”. The Hebrew word for soul, “Neshama”, is also the root for the word “neshima”, or breath. With every breath, life continues every day - 7 billion times around the world - every few seconds. When that is taken from someone, especially suddenly, life stops quickly. Let us then cherish every breath we are fortunate to take, better appreciating He who gives it to us and what we are expected to do with the life force it enables.
My father once told me about a bird he saw flying around an empty storefront near his office. He wondered how the bird survived in there. After some time, he noticed it merely hopping somewhat, unable to make it very far. He called the owner to alert him that the little bird seemed to be suffering in his store. When he came to unlock the place, the all but dead looking bird, barely able to move, shuffled itself to the open door summoning its last strength, and with a breath of the new fresh air, just flew away! Yes, we’ve been cooped up, losing our routines, and some people their very minds (a friend of mine, a mental health professional, reports skyrocketing prescriptions for medications to treat panic, anxiety and depression. He senses the sudden lack of control heretofore secure people feel is taking a heavy toll quickly).
But the breath of fresh air is coming and it’s time to muster our new strength when it comes, and fly.
The biblical Noah is the father of all mankind today, as all who lived at the time of the great flood in his time were destroyed. We might take his cue to be bold and unafraid. The Torah notes that Noah, who was so great he even walked with G-d, was great “in his time”.
Actually, the Sages teach it cuts both ways. Either he was great despite all the immorality and idolatry of his time. Or was great only because of the contemporary dereliction of his day but he would not have been as prominent in the time of say, Abraham, who acted with greater alacrity and without query to G-d’s will. Abraham also reached out to all those who he met while they were spiritually unaware, with openness and kindness, enlightening them with love and compassion, introducing them to sanctity.
It is important to be aware of Noah’s promptly “planting a vine” and “drinking the wine” soon after the flood ended, bringing him pain, and ensure that we avoid the intoxication and missteps which can also follow the giddy relief of returning to (even the new) normal.
Perhaps better to embrace the Abrahamic path, seeking the way to be more open and honest and kind and faithful and help bring the world closer to an undisputed G-dly awareness and greatness like Abraham did, (which Noah, despite his noted piety, sadly did not).
We will thus persevere until the day will soon come when we see the ultimate fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham by his and our creator, and get to that ultimate “normal” we have prayed for over the course of painful millennia, with the world redeemed and sorrow forever gone.
The author is the Executive Vice President of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington, DC. (His upcoming book, Capital Sparks, is to be released in early 2021.)