A Pandemic of Empathy

Free image by Toa Heftiba via upslash.com

Coronavirus.

Any day during coronavirus.
You feel a tickle in the back of your nose, and then a sneeze comes, and then another. You swallow and check; does it hurt? It does hurt. You touch a slightly panicked hand to your forehead, and the panic rises at the feeling of heat that registers on your fingertips. Your hand turns a doorknob, your hand turns a cap on a bottle, you swallow the pills, you head to bed. Your mind starts flipping through all the places, all the people you’ve seen in the past few days. What if you caught it, what if this is it? What if your body, which you cannot control, betrays your soul? As you pull the sheets over yourself, take a sip of water, you feel a sadness and a dread sink in on you. What if? What if this never ends? What if you are one of the unlucky ones? You cannot fall asleep, you can feel fear rise from the pit of your stomach to your throat and lodge there, still afraid to swallow. You doze off but awake quickly, awash with dread, with the fear that comes with being awake, with bleakness that colors the world around you darker. You try to brush it away but it returns, persistent, like a gnat; what if, what if it doesn’t get better?

And the anxious and depressed among us ask: Now, do you understand what it’s like?


Shabbat during coronavirus.

You sit. You sit, alone. The white tablecloth before you feels rough, smells plain, reflects light too glaringly. It’s set with only one place setting: yours. The specters of those you expected to have at your table- children, cousins, aunts and uncles- seem so close to you; with a little shake of your head you recall that they aren’t there with you, they aren’t coming; you are, truly, alone. You feel a tightness in your throat, that you know you cannot swallow away. Alone? For another Shabbat, another holiday? What about the family and the guests that you had been hoping, hoping to have at your table? You stand to make Kiddush and you hear your own chair scrape the floor, a noise all the more garish because the silence was unexpected. You raise the cup, cold, in your hand, warm, and begin to murmur the words that are meant to inspire, to uplift, to connect you to something greater than yourself, to which you always belong; but this year, all you can think of, all that fills your heart, is the sadness you can feel in your chest about the family you thought would surround you. But no, you are alone.

And the singles among us ask: Now, do you understand what it’s like?


Simchat Torah during coronavirus.

You stand on the edge, on the outskirts, not really feeling part of the celebration. You see others dancing, you watch their emotions leak into view through the wrinkle in their brow, their open mouths, the way their bodies sway with the concentration and jubilation of prayer in song. You sing along, under your breath, your mask stifling the tune even to your own ears, and you know and feel that it isn’t the same. Not the same at all, as being a part of that group, singing together, feeling together, the collective experience to which you long to belong, swaying together, praying together. It feels… it feels like being a spectator, somehow detached. In your heart you know that you have also tasted the sweetness of the words of Torah, also felt your pulse quicken at a new insight into old texts, felt the warm touch of a piece of advice for your life at a time when it was much needed. You have also raised your eyes to the heavens to thank God for what was given to you, to you, to you. But this year, this year you cannot participate: you remain on the edge.

And the women among us ask: Now, do you understand what it’s like?

Don’t we, don’t we understand what it’s like, now?
Now that we have experienced, in our own skins, in our own souls, what it’s like for those who before were “other” and who now are “us”.
Now that we understand…
Now…
What will we do with our coronavirus understanding?

 

The author would like to thank Leslie Ginsparg Klein for inspiration for this article.
On Chol HaMoed Sukkot, she posted: “So I am hearing a lot of complaints about Simchas Torah restrictions this year. I just want to remind everyone that sitting/standing in place while others dance with the Torah is what Simchas Torah is for many women every year.”

About the Author
Channah Cohen is the lead Applied Researcher at the OU's Center for Communal Research. Previously, she was an OU-JLIC Torah Educator at Queens College, teaching and mentoring students with strong Judaic backgrounds. Channah is an eternal student and teacher of the human experience and its resonance with spirituality, and strives to teach both in a way that personally engages adult learners.
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