As the vaccines begin to roll in, so does the hope of going back to normal. It’s not the bright, expectant kind of hope, but of the weary, nervous type; not only because we’ve started to forget what our previous definitions of normal were, but also because on another level, we know it’s not the same reality we’re heading back to. Concern burns through the international subconscious in each private language, seeming to have its focus on assessing the damage and wondering how drastically altered we’ll find each of our national landscapes once the smoke clears. Destructive and devastating, this pandemic has left behind a lot of darkness; the best we can do to have any semblance of control over the dark is to try to collect the sparks.
It takes the sun going down to see the stars. Maybe that’s why they’re so comforting, a sea of lights that only appear when they’re needed most. And they pose a contradiction: stars remind us of how lost we are in an infinite universe that we can’t begin to comprehend, but they guide us and give us direction. The time we have in the world is nothing to the lifespan of a star, yet they mark the passage of our days.
Everyone has experienced corona differently, some through irremediable pain and unimaginable loss; many others, overwhelming maladjustment or exhaustion. Nobody has been untouched, and this chapter of human history will maintain its influence over future generations long after the last person ends their quarantine. If we assume we’re going back to normal, and attempt to do so, all we’ll accomplish is giving the corona era free rein to determine without us how it shapes our future. We need to heal, but we can’t forget how much else needed to heal before the virus. Now that we’ve stepped back from normal, we have the opportunity to view our environment from a new perspective; now that we’ve taken a break from societal routine, we have a chance to reflect on what we can be doing better- on a personal level, on a communal level, and on a national level; now that we witness crisis firsthand, whether or not the victim, it’s critical that we review our values and confront how our identities have been impacted.
For me, this past year has been primarily defined by contrasts. Quarantines, solitude in the most extreme sense, and navigating the army, where being alone for more than a few minutes is a luxury, if not impossible (at least for me- I close eleven nights on base followed by three nights off). Midrasha, where the environment itself was inherently religious and intellectual, and the army, where the atmosphere feels at times somewhat foreign and ideological discussion is rarer. I spent a good part of the past few years trying to figure out what label to fit myself under, only now to find myself answering people who ask which stream I belong to that I appreciate all of them equally and simultaneously categorize myself with none.
Labels serve their purpose- they organize communities, they describe movements and institutions; to those inside they can be uniting and to those outside they may be divisive. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I know. Someone asked me in response to my affirmation that I believe in the eventual coming of the mashiach, which stream of Judaism he’ll announce is the correct one. I’d never heard this type of question posed, as it’s antithetical to the world I grew up in. Judaism is not sports, and communities aren’t competing teams. The human relationship to God is deeply personal and the traditions and ideological heritage of various communities each provide an authentic and uniquely beautiful methodology. Our national goal is not to tear each other down to stand the tallest, it’s to stand united under the Jewish civilization we’ve all fought and bled to not only shield and preserve, but to nurture and develop, in our respective ways. Unity in conformity is cheap, not to mention unsustainable. So many cultures, entire empires, have fallen in their trials to establish a supreme perspective to force upon others, or a monoculture to smother ideals or lifestyles perceived as foreign. The only true unity is in a strong enough loyalty to a person’s own identity that the other is no longer a threat, and where contrast and contradiction are a welcome challenge that further investigation and personal growth, not enemies to be eliminated.
To criticize is easy; faults are usually more obvious from the sidelines, and condemning them distracts us from our own. I find the Rabi Yehoshua quote in Pirkei Avos “evil speech (discussing others negatively), the evil eye (looking at others through a negative lens) and hatred for the creations (misanthropy) remove a person from this world” very applicable to both the individual and society as a whole. On a personal level, we cease to play a role in this world when we’re caught up in keeping track of what others are doing wrong. When we look at others with contempt, we lose sight of what we are in favor of establishing what we’re not; as Rabbi Sacks ZT”L wrote, a secure identity can’t be based on our comparison of ourselves to others. On a societal level, when we point fingers at the flaws of other groups, we forget to address our own. When we look at other groups condescendingly, we only drive them farther away. When we become embittered towards humanity, we cannot improve.
With the fourth elections coming up, and hearing about world events that certainly give us a lot to think about, I just hope that in the aftermath of corona we choose a healthier normal.