Just two weeks ago a small group of women met on the shores of the Kinneret for a Shabbat retreat. Motzei Shabbat, we turned on our phones again and faced new restrictions on our daily lives – restrictions which since then have become tighter still. Over 30 hours or so, we had quickly bonded. The initial theme of the retreat had been spring rejuvenation but, on the wave of COVID’s epidemic spread, it morphed into something more purposeful and dynamic.
We meditated on the mystical meaning of Hebrew letters, specifically one chosen on Friday night: yud – the letter of ten. It happened that we were ten women and, gathered around the Shabbat candles, we invited the spirit of the Shechinah into our midst. It is said that we receive a second soul on Shabbat, and it must have been that joyful soul that enabled us to soar above the mundane that Shabbat eve. Without technology or contact with the outside world, we swayed to the music of our own voices and shared deep wishes for our better selves and a better world. We cried, laughed, and danced around the four small children’s tables (we were eating and sleeping in a kibbutz gan) that formed our communal Shabbat table – many of us from different backgrounds, singing any song in Hebrew we could think of, until we finally sat down flushed and exhausted, to say kiddush.
Early the next morning I walked with a close friend to the dock, where the rising sun graced a full Kinneret that lapped upon nearby boulders, reminding us that in nature, chaos inevitably reverts to an equilibrium. Likewise, in human history, peace and calm cycles with war and disasters. Centuries ago, just a few kilometers away, Tiberias sustained damaging earthquakes. Behind me, not far in the distance, rose the iconic silhouette of Mount Arbel, where Romans attacked Jews in hiding over 2,000 years ago. It was not by any bargaining with my intellect or rational mind but by the undeniable connection I felt to a higher power, at that moment, that I felt reassured that a restoration in our lives will indeed occur again.
Later we did a meditative walk – quietly, in single file – along the shoreline, accompanied by crying gulls and fish slapping the water’s surface. When we met again at the gan in the afternoon, warm rays of sun permeated our activity room and evaporated the wetness of the previous night’s insistent rains. We now felt more comfortable to voice our fears and intimate feelings. We asked for what we needed in our lives: connectivity, forgiveness, trust, belief, patience, balance – compassion. From the incredible strength and passion our group of ten shared, we named ourselves the “Power of Yud” – symbolizing the Kabbalistic letter of power and transformation. Over the course of our sacred hours together, until Havdalah and beyond, our collective purpose melded into something cohesive – and a commitment to create some measure of positive change in a world that is in critical need of it.
In the days following the retreat I had lots of time to walk outside: I could no longer teach at the medical school and I took advantage of my free time to wander in the nature reserve close to our home. The exploding colors of spring blossoms reminded me of a topic I had studied a few years ago and got me thinking of a unique way to cope with COVID – using the concept of fractals.
A fractal is a never-ending pattern that repeats itself at different scales. Fractals are extremely complex, sometimes infinitely so, yet are simple to create – either mathematically, geometrically, or artistically. A fractal is made by repeating a basic design again and again. We find them throughout nature – from snowflakes and cacti to riverbeds and tree branches (which are also fractally the same as the increasingly small branches in our lungs called bronchioles – exactly where COVID causes its greatest harm). The repeating forms can be triangles, branches, or spirals.
Like other viruses, COVID appears as a fractal. I discovered an obscure but interesting paper suggesting that complex viruses such as SARS coronavirus tend to be more fatal because of their fractal geometry (specifically the many protrusions that extend from their surface)(1). Secondly, and fascinatingly, not only is its shape a fractal but its behavior is fractal. Just over a month ago, a paper was published suggesting that COVID’s current growth closely follows power-law kinetics, indicative of an underlying fractal or small-world network of connections between susceptible and infected individuals(2).
If COVID-19 looks and behaves as a fractal, one approach to its neutralization might be fractal as well. At a physical or scientific level, the obvious limitation to spread will include the development of an effective vaccine against the virus. Perhaps nanotechnology will provide alternative solutions such as a change to the outer coating of the virus that would make it more susceptible to immune destruction in our bodies.
At the emotional level, we are now individually and societally aware of the psychosocial, economic, and mental health effects of the COVID pandemic and social distancing. It’s the first time since the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic that the world has faced these incredible challenges. People have fortunately developed constructive and positive ways to survive the current plague, thanks in great part to modern technology. Our approach to mental health in these challenging times is also reliant on a fractal concept; social media platforms such as Facebook enable us to reach out almost infinitely to friends, contacts, and support groups across the globe.
But to be healthy, both individually and collectively, we must rely on the triad – that basic and essential form that defines stability (think of a stool) –for a healthy, productive life. That triad is body, mind, and spirit – a holistic approach. How might we confront COVID at the spiritual level?
One powerful Chasidic offering is from Rabbi Ginsburgh, using the application of Kabbalistic sefirot as a guide(3). Each sefira has an associated task, such as honoring one’s parents or giving charity. It’s the idea that the spiritual must be grounded in the world of action, of “mitzvot” – good deeds. According to a recently published book about the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s teachings(4), the Rebbe envisioned us as being “on the transitional cusp of an unfathomable evolution of consciousness—a spiritual revolution”, in which good deeds and a positive perspective bring holiness into our lives. In a world of materialism, consumerism, and hedonism, characterized by the “what’s in it for me” mentality, this spiritual prescription seems perfect for our time.
The Israeli journalist, Sivan Rahav-Meir, points out in her commentary on the parsha Vayak’hel, that “being part of a minyan (quorum), is a very Jewish thing: to know that the nine need the tenth and that the tenth needs the other nine”(5). The power of one intentional group of persons can create an energy that in and of itself is transformative. In our retreat group of ten, we were inspired to use the symbol of yud – also yad (hand) – to propel us forward for constructive change in our personal relationships, community, and globally. We are now planning to meet on Zoom every week, not only to support one another and share our personal experiences, but to find ways to make a difference – even while confined in our homes. On Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the month of miracles, we committed to being more thoughtful, more patient, to practice a daily routine, and to connect with others in whichever ways we can (via online classes, teaching in our respective areas of expertise), to make a difference.
As for me, I’m deeply sympathetic to the plight of my ER colleagues in Toronto who are facing the daily challenge of treating increasingly ill patients. I worked through, and was quarantined during, the outbreak of SARS in Toronto nearly 17 years ago and greatly appreciate the dedication of our current front-line workers. To help, I’m now doing telemedicine to perform COVID screening and help decrease the volume of these patients in clinics and hospitals.
Each of us can play our part. Imagine any group of ten, like our “Power of Yud” women’s group, multiplied fractally, infinitely – each group performing acts of kindness, forgiveness, mercy, or justice. Imagine this “viral” spread of goodness in the world and how it could provide positive change for a frenetic planet. As John Lennon sang, “imagine”, and be inspired – maybe soon, we’ll beat COVID at its own game.
Shout out to my YUD group: Hannah, Dikla, Rina, Sandra, Elisheva, Mery, Evie, Danielle, and Natalie.
4) “Positivity Bias” by Mendel Kalmenson
5) “#PARASHA – Weekly Insights from a Leading Israeli Journalist” by Sivan Rahav-Meir