Ariel Goldberg
Seeking the divine in a mixed-up world

Jewish spirituality may help us endure social distancing – and grow from it.

These are fearful times. Some of us are suffering from COVID-19 and some even fighting for their lives. Many people’s livelihoods are imperiled.  And even for those of us who are not enduring these awful trials, social distancing can, in its own way, be an ordeal.

Humans are social creatures. “לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ “It is not good for a human to be alone” explains God in Bereshit 2:18 when God creates Eve to be a companion for Adam. Contemporary neuroscience concurs. Research has demonstrated that long term social isolation is as detrimental to a person’s health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.

What are we to make of social distancing as Jews?  To be a Jew means to live as part of Klal Israel – a community called to model living the mitzvot, together, in a way that honors humanity’s creation in the image of God.  Social distancing, at first glance, appears antithetical to living a Jewish life. It certainly seemed that way to me when, for medical reasons, I had to start practicing distancing six years ago.  What a surprise it was, then, when I discovered, over time, how my distancing could support my connection to the Jewish people and God. Now that we are all practicing distancing, I feel moved to share what I have learned from my experience in the hope that it will support others.

The moderate distancing I practice differs from the intensive distancing called for by public health authorities during the COVID pandemic. Still, I know that my practice of distancing has profoundly affected my life.

I live with chronic fatigue and an inflammation disorder, stemming from a rare genetic condition. I easily catch bugs and have difficulty fighting them off.  This vulnerability and my fatigue mean that outside of my work as a clinical social worker,  celebrating shabbat with my community on shabbat mornings, and the time I share with my beloved wife, I must limit my interactions with others to a fair extent.

Practicing social isolation has not been an easy adjustment for me. I love people. I miss regularly learning and teaching torah in public, getting my fill of socializing or the live arts – and still my life is a full one.  My situation has not barred me from having meaningful connections with good people, individually and in community. It has nudged me to become more creative about how I connect.

Of especial significance to me has been the transition from praying daily with a minyan to praying mainly on my own. During my years at Yeshivat HaMivtar, in Israel, I loved davening b’tzibur (in public), three times a day.  In my yeshiva community, I experienced the phenomena of brov am hadrat melech (in a large gathering of people, the king’s dignity is manifest). The energy of my yeshiva’s heartfelt davening could make us sense God’s presence in our midst.  How, I wondered, could I pray any other way?

When I was pushed beyond my communal comfort zone and forced into praying on my own, most of the time, I discovered how much I had to learn about prayer. Without the community to mediate my relationship with God I experienced myself encountering God, directly, on many days, and feeling personally questioned, confronted and validated.

Praying יחיד (alone) has given me an opportunity to understand myself better as   יחוד (unique) – a person with his own unique relationship with God.

י-ח-ד  the root shared by these two Hebrew words, connotes that which is singular.  Singularity can denote aloneness. It can also denote unification. We notice this possibility when we combine the three root letters to form the word יחד (togetherness)

The interrelationship of the words yahid, yichud and yahad teach us, I believe, that in experiencing aloneness we can come to better understand our unique personalities – something we must do before we can genuinely experience togetherness with other people or God.

We can relate to others only inasmuch as we can relate to ourselves. (How, asked Rabbi Israel Salanter can a person fulfill the command to “love your fellow person as yourself” if he does not first love himself?) My experience as a person and a clinician has amply verified this idea. I also see it reflected in the Tanakh with its many accounts of Jewish leaders spending formative periods of their lives in solitude, a prerequisite for their gaining self-awareness and taking up their leadership (including Moses, King David and some of the prophets).

Today, when I pray alone, I often meditate on the final words of the Amidah yihyu l’ratzon imrei fi v’hegyon lbi lefanecha (may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be worthy of going before you, God).  When I prayed with a community its collective energy directed my kavanah (aim or intention) to a large extent. Now, when I pray, on my own, I must take responsibility for summoning my  kavanah so that I can pray from my heart and offer words that may be worthy of going before God.

To complement my teffilah, I practice hitbodedut, Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlev’s practice of conversing directly with God. I express to God whatever I am feeling in the moment – without judging or censoring myself.  In this way, I respond to the question each of us is asked everyday ‘Ayeka?’ – where are you?  Only when I answer wholeheartedly, freely expressing my hopes, anxieties, limitations and capacities can I begin to grasp what God seeks of me, in the here and now.

In quiet moments of hitbodedut I have sometimes experienced a kol dmamah dakah (a still small voice) conveying to me that I am not alone and will be sustained as I live through my life’s tribulations – even as I may screwup. With this awareness comes a sense of just how reliant I am on God as a masbiah l’kol chai (a sustainer of all life).  It follows that there is little in my life that I can fully control. But I do have the freewill to choose how I respond to whatever I am confronting and so I can participate in shaping my reality. As I live through the pandemic, this awareness is grounding for me.  I like to recall Rebbe Nachman’s guidance: “You are wherever your thoughts are, make sure that your thoughts are where you want to be”.  אתה נמצא במקום בו נמצאות מחשבותיך. ודא שמחשבותיך נמצאות במקום בו אתה .רוצה להיות.

I encourage you to try hitbodedut, if you haven’t, already. Besides being a fearful time, the pandemic is a period when some of us have quiet time to introspect, free of many of our regular distractions. If you’re at home quarantining, now, consider taking some moments, everyday, to talk to God, in your own words, expressing whatever is in your heart. If the emotions that emerge are negative and you feel ashamed, remember that God can take it. If King David could confess his moral turpitude and Job his rage over his losses, without God rejecting them, then surely God can deal with whatever you have to share.

If you begin the practice of hitboedut you may want to note how the experience feels and what you learn from your conversations with God. It can be difficult to integrate the hitbodedut experience in real-time. Reviewing it later can be helpful.

Through hitbodedut, I have learned how vital it is for me to live with a sense of hakarat hatov (recognizing the good). Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that “the surest way to suppress our ability to understand the meaning of God…. is to take things for granted. Indifference to the sublime wonder of living is the root of sin.” (Between God and Man, p. 40). I have been guilty of that sin.

Being a type-A person who is naturally driven and goal-oriented, I have spent periods of my life feeling chronically dissatisfied and reaching for more and more.  In my social life, I have felt driven to connect with as many people as possible, network and expand my base of support.  This has gone on at the expense of  frequently overlooking the sublime wonder of the close relationships I am blessed to have or taking for granted how God is present in them.

My social distancing is moving me to accept my limitations and feel more grateful. On good days when I have the stamina for a lively get-together with friends, I can savor the experience as a gift, enjoy feeling wholly engaged and wonderfully alive.  My relationships feel more fulfilling, now, even as my quantity of social interactions has diminished.

Cultivating gratitude requires daily practice.  Neuroscience has demonstrated that our minds have a “negativity bias”.  It takes twice the mental effort to concentrate on a positive aspect of our lives and feel gratitude as it does to concentrate on a negative aspect of our lives and feel frustration.   Evolution has provided us with a negativity bias so that we can detect incoming threats. But when we habitually focus on negative possibilities, we can create a picture of reality that is dark and distorted.

This threat is especially present when we are dealing with acutely stressful situations such as a pandemic.

Overcoming our negativity bias calls for recognizing, literally, re-thinking, how we are processing our experiences. Through practicing recognizing the good in our lives (hakarat hatov), we can shift our perspectives, over time, toward being more grateful.

Just as we cannot strengthen a muscle without exercising it, daily,  we need to exercise our emotional muscles (as both the Mussar movement and cognitive behavioral psychology emphasize).   My teacher, the Israeli psychologist Dr. Miriam Adahan, taught me about exercising my gratitude through keeping a ‘gratitude journal’. This practice has strengthened me, emotionally. I believe it can do the same for others.

During the pandemic, and beyond, consider making a daily inventory of the positive things you experience. Designate a notebook to be your inventory or create a file on your iPhone. You might notice something as simple as seeing a bird land on your window or a reasonably good chat with a friend. It all matters. At the end of the week, you might choose to review your inventory and take ownership of the positive things that have happened. This simple exercise can lead, over time, to a shift in one’s perspective.

Feeling gratitude for my relationships is helping me let go of my expectation of always socializing in-person. Sometimes, I am not well enough to see people and an email or phone call must do the trick. I embrace the idea of “What comes from the heart enters the heart” (of another person). מה שיוצא מהלב נכנס ללב  . Heartfulness is the key.

Much as I enjoy the dynamism of interacting face to face, I can report that among my most meaningful relationships are some that I share with faraway friends who I mainly connect with virtually and see in person only every few years. There have been hidden blessings in our virtual connections. Communicating from the comfort of our homes lends itself to thoughtfulness, to exploring each other’s lives in depth – things that would be harder for us to do if we tended to meet in busy cafes or at noisy Shabbat meals. This also holds true for my Torah learning: I enjoy teaching and doing hevruta learning in person but a room full of learners can also distract me. Teaching and learning, virtually  has allowed me to have some of my most in-depth engagements with Torah texts and my fellow learners.

Today, social distancing is physically separating people, their loved ones and communities – even if they live in the same neighborhood. It is also impeding people from accessing the torah learning  that may play a vital role in their lives. It need not mean that these connections must deteriorate. They can take on new forms.

This period of social distancing may be an opportunity for you to embrace new, creative ways of learning torah. If you aren’t already learning online – try it! Cyberspace was full of online Jewish learning opportunities before the pandemic hit and now those possibilities have expanded. Many of the platforms for Jewish learning are interactive and uniquely enjoyable.

Have you been waiting for a ‘good time’ to learn Hebrew or improve your comprehension, follow the Daf Yomi cycle, explore Jewish mindfulness or research a new topic of interest?  Now might be a rare quiet time to make a start.

The pandemic may provide us with opportunities to reconnect with old friends, members of our extended families or mentors. If you are feeling depleted by spending time alone consider checking-in, daily, with another member of your community who is in the same boat.

Offering support to another person can reorient us away from dwelling on our own problems, give us a new sense of agency and help us to feel less overwhelmed. A person does not have to be a social worker to be supportive.  Just asking a heartfelt ‘how are you feeling?’ and listening, with openness, to whatever the other person shares can help them feel validated. (Research demonstrates that ‘feeling heard’ is the most vital component of emotional support).  Many shuls are connecting members to serve as ‘support buddies’. Consider becoming involved. If your community hasn’t created a program, see if you can start one

The pandemic is a horrific development, but it may offer some of us opportunities to grow.  People rarely expand their spiritual or emotional awareness until circumstances shake them out of their modus operandi. A global shakeup is underway, now, and some of us have time to introspect.  We should not take it for granted.

Perhaps the pandemic is the kind of paradoxical situation described in masechet brachot (59b). A gemara explains that there are situations of loss where a person first recites baruch dayan emet (the blessing for hearing bad news) and, later on, experiences positive outcomes that call for him to recite baruch ha-tov-v’e-ha-maytiv (the blessing for hearing good news).  An example cited in the gemara is a person who loses a father and later receives an inheritance. No silver lining can compensate the person for the loss of his beloved parent.  And even amidst great darkness there can be points of light, such as an inheritance, that move a person with hakarat ha-tov to eventually recite baruch ha-tov ve’-ha-maytiv.

Today, we are contending with the loss of life in K’lal Israel and the community at large, widespread physical and financial suffering, and we can only say baruch dayan emet. There are no silver linings on these awful losses. But for those of us who, for reasons we will never understand, are spared those devastations, the experience of social distancing may yet prove growthful. And perhaps, someday, when the pandemic is over and we have emerged more aware, the time will come for us to recite baruch ha-tov ve’-ha -maytiv.

Zei Gezunt!  

About the Author
I am an Open-Orthodox rabbi and psychotherapist based in Rockville, MD . A native of Ottawa Canada, I renewed my life in Israel where I earned rabbinic ordination in 2012 while studying at Yeshivat HaMivtar (Efrat). My life is a work in progress informed by my religious experiences, parenting, living with a disability and encountering people in HaShem’s mixed-up world.
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