Emerging from Quarantine as Victors

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What will we tell future generations about quarantine under COVID-19? What lessons have we learned that we want to perpetuate? Will we note how the ‘pause’ put on our lives has ‘fast-forwarded’ innovation in technology, medicine, healthcare, and the speed at which these innovations have been adopted?

Will we share how we have shifted our attention to community, family, and personal life? How we have found ourselves more generous, caring, and patient with ourselves and others, and how our understanding of self and our family members has accelerated in ways that would have otherwise taken years to decades? Our answers to these questions to ourselves and future generations will define what a post-Corona world will look like.

Seeing the silver lining and acting, as opposed to being acted upon, is the Jewish approach to personal struggle. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik eloquently expresses this in his book Kol Dodi Dofek:

According to Judaism, man’s mission in this world is to turn fate into destiny — an existence that is passive and influenced into an existence that is active and influential; an existence of compulsion, perplexity, and speechlessness into an existence full of will, vision, and initiative (pp. 5-6).

One of the most famous responses to tragedy in the humash was that of Aharon: silence. He was famously silent – vayidom Aharon – and did not ask: “Why did God do this to me?” He recognized that he could not know the ‘Why,’ and understood that no human could have a full perspective knowing the mind of God. While Aharon and the text remained largely silent as to the reason, the rabbis of the midrash were not, and expressed at least six different expositions, finding meaning for themselves and their constituents (Vayiqra Rabbah 20:6,9. Tbavli Erubin 63a, Tbavli Sanhedrein 52a). These rabbis understood that while we cannot know the ‘Why,’ the motivation behind God’s actions, we can generate meaning for ourselves and create our own personal why.

Viktor Frankl found meaning for himself amongst the horrors he experienced in his life, even during the Holocaust. He wrote the following powerful statement expressing this in his book Man’s Search for Meaning:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way….One could make a victory of those experiences, turning life into an inner triumph… (pp. 86 and 93)

In the last few months, there has been tremendous pain and loss, and we cannot know the ‘Why’ of Coronavirus. Still, we can create our own personal meaning and learn lessons for ourselves, turning our challenges into opportunities for growth.

Soon we will have the opportunity of returning ‘back to normal,’ to ‘freedom’ from quarantine. Have we generated meaning for ourselves to create a post-Corona life, that is better than our pre-Corona one? If our new freedom means a return to a life of hurriedness, the culture of ‘productivity,’ where every moment is pre-scheduled, yet we are too busy to eat lunch, call our family, or tuck our children in bed, then we are not truly free, and are being driven, but are not the drivers of our lives.

That is why coming out of quarantine, being granted our physical freedom, should not be the goal, the destination, but rather the opportunity to live our lives differently. During quarantine, we have experienced community cohesiveness, generosity, kindness, patience, care, and a focus on family and societal life. Will this continue, or will we retrogress, i.e., go back to normal?

When the Jewish people came out of slavery in Egypt, finding themselves with renewed physical freedom, they did not head directly to ‘The Promised Land.’ Their freedom from Egypt was not the goal; entering the land would not be the ultimate victory. There would first need to be a transformative process where their experience of oppression in Egypt became the foundation of a new societal model, where instead of oppressing the weak and defenseless in a hierarchical system, like that of Egypt, they would establish a culture that would take responsibility to protect and care for the most vulnerable and raise them up. This, in fact, is the reason why we must ‘remember’ our oppression and why the instruction ‘to remember’ is connected so often with a directive to care for the stranger, widow, and orphan. This misva, commandment, to ‘remember,’ zakhor, demands the transformative process of turning past experiences into an impactful future, and is thereby generative, the literal meaning of the Hebrew root zakhar.

This is made clear on the seder night, when we fulfill the misva of zakhor, ‘remembering’ our Egyptian experience. We do our ‘remembering’ not through simply retelling a past history, but rather through expressing the memory in a way that is generative, meaningful, and useful for our future, leBinkha (Shemot 13:8).

So, for generations, we relive the Egyptian experience as a catalyst for social change: not viewing ourselves as the victim, but as the victor, empowered to create a better future.

As we leave ‘Egypt’ with our exodus from quarantine, we have the opportunity of deciding how we will ‘remember’ our coronavirus experience and generate meaning.

While we cannot control what happened to us, we can choose our attitude, how we respond, and the lessons we will learn and share. We have the opportunity of writing our own Haggadah, relaying the story of our trials and triumph for generations. Thus, we are catapulted to a new horizon, an existence of will, vision, and initiative.

About the Author
Rabbi Meyer Laniado is the assistant rabbi of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and serves as the leader of its thriving Sephardic community on New York's Upper East Side.
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