Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Our Journey through COVID
What a journey it has been through this unimaginable year and a half. The loss of so many loved ones, the collapse of our treasured sense of safety, the inability to gather in sacred spaces, to attend special events, and to hug our loved ones.
We have experienced swings of fear, dislocation and frustration, as well as times of deep gratitude, appreciation and insight. Our nervous systems must have been scrambled by all the intense feelings and struggles to adapt to an unwelcome “new normal.” And our assumptions about the basic fairness of life in our country and our world (“we are all in this together”) have been revealed as a bitter illusion.
Now we venture out again. Out into the arms of loved ones, into the comfort of synagogues and other treasured gathering spaces, into friends’ homes and even into airplanes to visit loved ones we have sorely missed.
But many of us are still shaken. Still wondering about the variants, about whether it’s really safe to go unmasked or to stop intensively washing our hands. We so deeply absorbed the messages about danger that it may be hard to believe that we are OK again.
Just at this time, we come to a Torah portion that is all about journeys. (The second half of the double portion is mas'ei, which means “journeys.”)
“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel who came forth from the land of Egypt in their hosts . . . Moses wrote their comings forth and their journeys by the word of God. And these are their journeys and comings forth.” (Numbers 33:1-2)
In the verses, the words “journeys” and “comings forth” recur. Almost like an incantation, the Torah invites us to contemplate each stop along the way from Egypt to the Land of Israel. What are we to learn by looking back so carefully on the stages of our journey?
It is told in the name of the Ba’al Shem Tov, “When you are traveling and therefore cannot pray and study in your usual way, you must serve Y-H-W-H in other ways. Do not be distressed by this, for God needs to be served in all ways, sometimes one and sometimes another. That is why it came about that you needed to travel, in order to serve God in this way. ‘These are the journeys of the Children of Israel.’ Their journeys too were for the sake of serving Y-H-W-H; that is why they were written in the Torah.” (From “Speaking Torah,” volume 2, by Arthur Green)
The Ba’al Shem tells us that changing circumstances call for different ways of serving God/Oneness/Life. When all is “normal,” we can keep to our routines and stay grounded in what we believe to be meaningful. At other times, all is disrupted. But we are to serve God nonetheless — in unusual ways if need be.
How did we serve God/Life during the time of Covid? I believe the pandemic has evoked and necessitated a practice of chesed (kindness), as the whole human race has been brought to its knees by a microscopic virus. We have been forced to practice savlanut (forbearance), bearing circumstances we could not have imagined we could tolerate.
We have had to give into the reality of powerlessness and the radical uncertainty of life, like it or not. We have been drawn to reconnect with our primal connection to all of humanity, and therefore with our profound obligation to care for others, especially those with less than we have.
What will be our sacred service as we go forth from the constrained and frightening time of the pandemic?
I hope that we will rush to return to the people and things we loved, turning our backs on this terrible experience. Of course, we must embrace with renewed appreciation the people and aspects of life we longed for when we were deprived of them. But this horrific crisis will have gone to waste if we — as individuals, as a nation, and as a global community — fail to learn what the pandemic has to teach us.
I hope that our hearts will be softened by suffering, and opened in kindness to others. I like to think that, having survived the Covid era, we will be a little more patient with the small annoyances of life. I want us to keep our eyes open to the unpredictability of life. Letting go of the illusion of our mastery over life will make us more open-hearted and wiser people. Perhaps most of all, I hope that we will emerge from this time forever changed, having recognized how much we share with all of humanity, having learned that the suffering of others is inextricably tied to our own lives.
If we made this our sacred service going forward, we would change the world.
This column first appeared at https://www.jweekly.com/2021/07/09/our-journey-through-covid-must-count-for-something/ on July 9, 2021.