I don’t think I can count how many times I have said, “How are we going to get through this?” to my husband over the last few days.
And by we, I mean not just my immediate family of seven, which has been in quarantine since returning from New York to Israel last week, but our entire world, which has been thrown into a state of total uncertainty as we battle COVID-19.
Over Shabbat, I admittedly vacillated between moments of panic and despair and moments of calm and serenity, depending both on what was going on around me and where my racing brain would lead me. I struggled to find the idea that would help me maintain some sanity.
And then I thought of Rav Dov, who has himself contracted this nefarious virus.
It was November 2014, a few months after the end of Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, and Rav Dov Singer, Rosh Yeshiva of Mekor Chaim, was invited to speak to the Yeshivat Har Etzion SKA Beit Midrash for Women-Migdal Oz about the events of the past summer. The kidnapping and brutal murder of two of Rav Singer’s 11th grade students, Naftali Frenkel and Gil-ad Shaer (along with Eyal Yifrach), had set off that summer’s war, and Rav Singer had come to share his reflections and give strength to our students, who were still processing the traumatic events.
“How did you get through the period of uncertainty and sheer terror after the boys were kidnapped and their whereabouts were unknown?” a young woman publicly asked Rav Singer as soon as he finished his formal remarks.
“Excuse me, I don’t understand the question,” he responded.
The young woman began to repeat herself when Rav Singer interrupted her to explain that while he had heard and understood the words of her question, he did not understand the assumption they were based on.
The language of “getting through” difficult times presumes that when life is good we should live it and enjoy it and take advantage of it, but that when life is hard, we should do our best to get through it as quickly and smoothly as we can, while giving it the least attention and energy possible.
Rav Singer explained that he cannot relate to this approach. He prefers to live life deeply and fully, even in times of pain, sorrow or complexity, because these things, too, are part of life. Life encompasses all of these experiences and emotions, and if we ignore those parts of life, we ignore opportunities for meaning and growth.
Over the last five years, I have reflected often on Rav Singer’s words, specifically because his attitude is so different than my own instincts. For me “just getting through” things often becomes my primary goal.
As someone who likes control and order and who thrives on stability and predictability, it is easy for me to feel overwhelmed when things are thrown off balance. When things seem to go wrong, I’d rather blame myself (a tendency that Dr. Brene Brown explains in the brilliant video below) than admit that some things are beyond my control. It is hard to avoid the questions of “Why is this happening?” or “Could I or someone else have made choices that could have prevented this?”
But what if the thing that is happening is so big and so encompassing that it is clearly well beyond any of us to understand and try to make sense of it? How should we react when faced with forces that make us feel like we are in a free-fall?
Rav Joseph B Soloveitchik writes:
“Man should not ask: Why evil? He should rather raise the question: What am I supposed to do if confronted with evil; how should I behave vis-a vis evil? The latter is a powerful challenge to man and it is the duty of man to meet this challenge boldly and courageously. Suffering, in the opinion of Judaism, must not be purposeless, wasted. Out of suffering must emerge the ethical norm, the call for repentance, for self elevation. Judaism wants to convert the passional frustrating experience into an integrating, cleansing and redeeming factor.” (Community, Covenant and Commitment, 331-32)
According to Rav Soloveitchik, when we feel most vulnerable, mortal, scared and alone, we need to think about what exactly we should do now and where we should go from here.
We should ask ourselves how we can react to our current situation.
Can we pray with more concentration and thought? Can we reach out to people in need of help in a myriad of ways? Can we make the next best decisions from a place of trust, rather than fear? Can we create more unity, close gaps and make amends with those we usually struggle with? Can we develop our characters, work on our flaws, humbly embrace our limitations and repent in our ways? Can we talk with added patience, see beyond ourselves and try to tap into our greatest potential for good?
Can we live life deeply and meaningfully with purpose and intent?
I shared all these thoughts with my children last night, as the peacefulness of Shabbat came to an end and we knew that things might get more complicated before they get better. We tried to think about how we could best be there for each other during this difficult and stressful time.
With hope and prayer that we won’t just “get through” this, but will make the most of it as well.