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A spiritual exit strategy

Will things go back to normal? No. But I pray we emerge from this pandemic just a little softer, gentler, and kinder

Countries around the world are beginning to plan and implement their ‘Exit Strategy,’ gradually removing restrictions and returning to some semblance of normalcy, following the COVID-19 pandemic.

But just how will we emerge from this pandemic? How will the world return to normal? And what will that new normal look like?

Our world has changed. We spent weeks and months in isolation. In lockdown. Quarantined. Disconnected from friends and family. Separated from society. Practicing ‘Social Distancing,’ we distanced ourselves from one another.

How long will we continue to distance one another?

Dr. Anthony Fauci has even suggested that we should forgo handshakes, long after COVID-19 is behind us. No more handshakes? Will we give up the simple, sublime pleasure of physical touch? Of an embrace?

These trying times have tested our ability to connect with one another. After months in isolation, will we continue to focus on ourselves or be concerned with the needs of others? Have we lost our ability connect?

While ‘Social Distancing’ helps prevent the spread of infection, the term itself can be counterproductive, even dangerous. Early on, Dr. Daniel P. Aldrich, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern University and director of its Security and Resilience program, advocated instead the use of ‘Physical Distancing,’ a term which the World Health Organization quickly adopted. ‘Physical Distancing’ more aptly describes the goal of  protecting ourselves and others, without cutting ties to our community.

Maintaining social connections during disasters is crucial. Studies have shown that in times of stress, feelings of isolation and loneliness can be devastating to immune health, making us even more vulnerable. In an interview with the Washington Post, Aldrich said, “social ties are the critical element to getting through disasters.” His research has shown that the stronger social ties a community has, the better it is able to weather disasters.

And Aldrich would know.

After Hurricane Katrina destroyed his family’s home in New Orleans, Aldrich decided to figure out how people survive catastrophes like the one he survived. Studying Japan’s March 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown, he found that “the communities where no one died had incredibly strong social cohesion. They were able to evacuate and help everyone out of their homes.”

Here in Israel, we were blessed to see examples of ‘strong social cohesion,’ up close.

One of the beautiful things that emerged during this difficult, dark time was a sense of unity, brotherhood, and community. With synagogues closed, we prayed together with our neighbors from rooftops, balconies and gardens. While practicing ‘Physical Distancing,’ we connected instead spiritually. Jews of all different stripes, backgrounds, ages, persuasions and political affiliations – Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, Israeli, Anglo, Haredi, Religious Zionist – came together in one voice to call out to God. To praise Him and thank Him and ask Him to heal those who are sick. Families that belong to different synagogues were brought together by circumstance. Unfortunately, sometimes it takes a pandemic to bring Jews together. But the result was something special. We should try it more often.

And then there were the acts of kindness. Stories emerged of young people helping homebound seniors. Of people shopping and cooking for one another. Of money raised for bereaved families. Of medical professionals working around the clock – and risking their own health – to care for the sick. Our tradition, after all, teaches, “The world stands on three things: Torah, service, and acts of kindness” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:2). Kindness is literally one of the pillars  of Judaism.

But kindness doesn’t always come easy.

Following the Flood, when Noah and his family finally emerge from the Ark, God blesses Noah and his family to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the the land” (Gen. 9:1). They are charged with the arduous task of replenishing and rebuilding the world.

And then something goes awry.

The Torah relates that Noah becomes “a man of the earth,” debasing himself and planting a vineyard. “He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself within his tent” (Ibid. 9:20-21).

Instead of building cities, roads, and schools – or even planting wheat or food crops – Noah plants a vineyard and gets drunk. What exactly happens next is the subject of much discussion and debate in Rabbinic literature and among the Bible commentaries, but according to a simple reading, in his drunken stupor, Noah “uncovered” or “exposed” himself. His true intention – his very essence –  revealed.

Raw. Unadulterated. Unfiltered.

Noah could have emerged from the Ark ready to rebuild a ruined world. Instead, he indulges his most base desires. He continues to stay in a spiritual ‘lockdown’ of sorts. Isolated. Quarantined off from the society around him. Deaf to the Divine call to rebuild.

It’s a tragic end to a heroic story.

But how will our story end? How will we emerge from this crisis? What is our spiritual ‘Exit Strategy’?

If anything, this awful virus has taught us that this world is much smaller than we thought. How each and every one of us is deeply connected. For better or worse.

Will things go back to normal?

No.

But that’s OK.

My hope and prayer is that we emerge from this pandemic just a little softer, gentler, and kinder. That we recognize how the fabric of our lives is so tightly woven together. That after all of the ‘distancing,’ we focus on reconnecting. And that together we rebuild this world, with a strong foundation, resting on pillars of kindness.

About the Author
Rabbi Shimshon HaKohen Nadel lives and teaches in Jerusalem, where he serves as rabbi of Har Nof's Kehilat Zichron Yosef.
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