Ariel Fisher
An Orthodox Rabbi Living In Senegal

Lessons we learned after being displaced by COVID-19

Flight Attendant on Emergency Evacuation Flight From Dakar, Senegal (Courtesy of Author)

This week’s parsha is the most challenging and painful portion of the Torah that we have read since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. In it, God tells the Jewish people about the immense suffering that they will face if they do not follow the Torah’s commandments. Upon inspection, one realizes that most of the punishments share a common theme: the homeland will be ruined, and the Jewish people will be displaced.

Unfortunately, Jewish history is full of stories of displacement, starting with the biblical enslavement in Egypt, through the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, continuing through the Expulsion from Spain and the destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust. As the grandson of a Holocaust survivor who moved to Israel to fight in the Israeli War of Independence, I grew up on stories of Jewish displacement. However, they were always supplemented by the story of the redemption that followed the Holocaust in the establishment of the State of Israel.

I, like many Jewish people, have assumed that this experience of being uprooted is a thing of the past. We have been fortunate to live in a world where it was easy to be a global citizen. It was possible to hop on a plane in New York in the morning and arrive in China the next day. When my wife and I decided to move to Senegal for the year, we assumed that, if need be, we could easily fly to Israel or America without much effort.

Of course, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, that all changed. In mid-March, as the new reality began to sink in, my wife and I realized that we would have to leave our home in Dakar to be closer to family during this time of crisis. We tried to reach Israel, but with the shutdown of international travel and the closure of the Senegalese borders, we realized that making it to Israel would be impossible. Fortunately, we were able to board a US State Department emergency evacuation flight from Senegal to America, and, in our own strange way, continued the long Jewish tradition of being displaced from our home.

We left behind dear friends, half of our belongings, and my wife’s plan of finishing the fieldwork for her doctorate in anthropology. We hope to return to Senegal when it becomes safe and possible again. However, we are much more fortunate than most displaced Jews throughout history. Our families are healthy, and we have an extensive support network. My grandfather could not have said the same thing after escaping the Hungarian Nazis in 1944.

What have we learned from this? I have found some consolation in a kabbalistic practice explained by Rav Moshe Cordovera, a 16th century kabbalist from Sfat who himself was the child of parents who were expelled from Spain. Rav Cordovera outlines a spiritual practice in which you voluntarily become displaced, in his language, “divorced” from your home. While I have often wondered why somebody would voluntarily do this, I have begun to understand the benefits of this spiritual practice as well.

Being displaced, not having a home, is hard. There have been a lot of real challenges. We feel vulnerable, and at times powerless and scared.  Most evenings, after our boys have gone to sleep, we are too exhausted and worn out to process our new reality. Occasionally however, when we have a moment to catch our breath and reflect on our situation, we are filled with a deep sense of gratitude and appreciation for the blessings that we have received. So many people from around the world have offered to help us out, sending us warm clothing and toys for our boys, delivering food to us, and calling to see how we are doing. Dear family friends have even lent us their vacation home to stay in while we recalibrate our next steps. Paradoxically, being scared and vulnerable has helped us become people who are even more appreciative of the many good things that we have in our lives. Perhaps this is the secret behind Rav Cordevero’s spiritual practice of displacement.

I think that this is also the reason that being banished from the land is the central threat in this week’s parsha. The Torah repeatedly claims that the Jewish people will be punished for treating God with keri, which the Rabbis of the Talmud understand to mean treating God as happenstance. When we treat the world around us as if it happens randomly — mikreh in Hebrew — we lose our ability to be grateful and appreciate our blessings. COVID-19 has reminded us, and the entire world, how much we have taken for granted before this horrible plague. I am not suggesting that the coronavirus is a Divine punishment, but rather am pointing out that it has helped people around the world appreciate many things that we have taken for granted beforehand.

Perhaps the exile that the Torah proscribes is a corrective measure that allows the Jewish people to fix the very thing that led to their exile. God threatens to exile the Jewish people for not being grateful enough for what they have, being in exile helps them become a more grateful nation. That new gratitude will also help them return to their homes eventually. While Bina and I do not feel like we have been given a Divine punishment, we do hope that we can continue to be grateful and appreciative of all of the gifts that we receive in our lives — big and small — even after our lives return to normal.

About the Author
Ariel Fisher is an Orthodox rabbi who is currently spending the year in Dakar, Senegal with his wife, an anthropologist as his wife conducts field research for her PhD. They have two boys with them as well. Before moving to Senegal, Ariel worked as the OU-JLIC Rabbi at Princeton University for four years. He studied for his semicha in Israel, has a BA from the University of Pennsylvania in Urban Studies and plans on making Aliyah with his wife and children from Senegal at the end of the year.
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