The days are starting to blend together. Waking up, checking the news and speculation, research and theories, searching for new ways to cope, all while trying to balance work and family responsibilities and the ever present, rarely heeded calls for self-care. Many are fixated on the disaster, looking out, barely able to break their gaze. Others are curled in, retracting, and retreating, struggling with loneliness or managing their family, barely able to look up much less breath.
In an era of self-obsession with image we are suddenly stuck in our six foot bubble of anxiety – a shiny, disinfected echo chamber reflecting our fears. Our worlds have become untethered – both physically and socially – and the more we are stuck in the house, the less at home we feel. Our sense of security and certainty has burst, and this six foot bubble is all that remains.
It was with this frame of mind that I read a small note in my siddur during Shabbat Mincha this week. Like many, I was consigned to saying the Afternoon Prayer at home, with my shul closed, and I chose to use a siddur I rarely use. On the second prayer of the service, U’va L’Tzion, a prayer I say every single day, I noticed that it summarized and analyzed the idea from Tractate Sotah 48a-49a that this prayer, centered around a kedusha, is the reason the world persists. How could this be? This is not a prayer of metaphysical beliefs, of mystical faith, of spiritual emotion, or even encounter with the Divine. It is not the Shema or Amida. Yes, it is a kedusha, but not the one that we do communally, often in song, but the one at the very end of the service that gets mumbled through quickly.
The Talmud starts to explain that since the Beit HaMikdash was destroyed there is no day that is not cursed, no day that is fully blessed, and every day gets worse… but for this kedusha d’sidra – a sanctification of order – which upholds the very existence of the world in these dark times. This idea is derived from a verse in Job (10:22), “A land of weary gloom, an obscuring darkness; Death’s shadow and disorder” – thus, the Talmud concludes, it is only through order that the world will reemerge, with blessing illuminated. The destruction of the Second Temple completely destroyed the Jewish people’s sense of certainty and security. They were removed physically from their cities and homes, exiled in body and spirit, to an extent that perhaps we can only just now begin to empathize with. The Rabbis understood that it is only through structured order that we can survive in dark times and eventually even flourish.
You might step back and realize that the practical advice here is not new. If you are a parent, you likely have seen the dozens of articles and posts encouraging you to create schedules and routines for your kids. If you have read articles on mental health during this crisis, you likely have seen social workers or psychologists point out the importance of keeping mentally engaged and optimistic. And we all have seen those advising that in this time we must make sure we remain socially connected (see my previous piece). The Rabbis in many ways instantiated these same ideas over 1500 years ago – for there is nothing new under the sun….
But the note in my siddur continued further by quoting the Manhig, the 13th century Provencal Rabbi Abraham ben Nathan. He explains that the reason that this prayer in particular establishes order is that it was created specifically for those who did not make it to synagogue and missed kaddish and for those who worked and could not stay to study Torah daily. Just like today, when shuls and temples are closed, and in these times, when Torah study may be neglected due to the closing of schools and the added distractions of cramped quarters, anxieties, and never-ending news stories. Now is exactly when the kedusha d’sidra was created for. Yes, originally it existed in part to allow for latecomers to hear another kaddish and encourage physical community through minyan. Interestingly, though, that is not among the reasons the Manhig cites. Instead, he states the kedusha d’sidra exists to make us cognizant of God’s role in preserving our stability – by giving us tools to establish order, such as Torah, and promising us hope in redemption, geulah.
The Manhig also reminds us that we are not alone. God and past generations have bequeathed to our tradition many tools to create order, maintain routine, help us connect spiritually, nourish wisdom, and give hope in the face of crisis. Ultimately, such times make us realize that our sense of certainty was always illusory. A single 120 nanometer virus could bring down our society as much as the Roman or Babylonian Empires. At the end, all we are left with is our six foot bubble, or as Rav Joseph Soloveitchik would have called it, our dalet amot.
The Talmud (Berakhot 8a) states that after the destruction of the Temple, the only space left to God in this world is the dalet amot of halakha (lit. a measurement of about 6.2 ft). For Rav Soloveitchik, these dalet amot contain the whole world for the lonely men and women of faith, but they are not empty or full of dread (The Lonely Man of Faith). Our dalet amot bubble contains the only personal space we have left, and by that I do not mean the rapidly-diminishing physical or social space we nominally control, but our internal head space. In there, we can strive for being what Rav Soloveitchik called Adam the Second; grounding ourselves in that space through Torah and calming it through the routines and order of halakha. But this space promises more than regaining some calm through measured breaths. These dalet amot are the only place left on Earth where we can encounter God:
Barukh kavod Hashem mimkomo – bless this place where we can engage God’s glory.
Melo khol ha’aretz kivodo – filling our world with awareness of the Divine.
As God’s light fills our bubble, we relearn to discover, connect, and show love to untouchable and invisible others through the model of our relationship to God, incorporeal, broadcasting our hopes and needs into the virtual space between our worlds. We cease to compete and seek to cooperate. We stop striving for individual success but instead acknowledge our need to sacrifice. In the microcosmic Temple of our mind, our mikdash me’at me’at, we perform daily individual sacrifices, such as self-quarantining, and communal sacrifices, such as closing our synagogues, to protect our loved ones and even save the world. Or better yet, redeem it. Yes, at any moment our bubble may burst, and we must trust in God to keep us afloat. But whatever happens, we will have filled our bubble world with true meaning and connection, holiness and hope, letting it soar to
higher – Kadosh,
and higher – Kadosh,
and higher – Kadosh – spiritual heights.
L’havdil as Frodo once said, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (The Fellowship of the Ring). In these dark times, let us pray for acheinu- every Jew and all mankind, who are in distress and in quarantine, throughout the land and across the sea, that God have mercy and take us from distress to comfort, from darkness to light, and from confinement to redemption, speedily. Amen.