We are living with the danger and fear of overload — Not only the facts bombarding us, but their nuances and implications:
(a) the spookiness of so little traffic even on the Washington Beltway;
(b) what does it mean that the virus is not a living entity;
(c) is it still there on your surgical gloves and the next thing you touch will be infected;
(d) for retirees, how much does the dive in the stock market fearfully change how much we estimated we might live?
(e) firefighters and cops testing positive;
(f) What about the orchestra at the Kennedy Center, getting their last pay check this week?
(g) not so much the pilots and flight attendants, but the baggage handlers, porters, and people who clean the planes, how will they eat?
(h) Pundits, experts, biologists, and talking heads reciting facts, propounding theories, and educated and not-so-educated guesses,
(i) The thought that keeps popping up from the back of our minds: 1918 The Flu Epidemic?
It’s no effort at all to go on and on to the end of an alphabet – no, two or three of times through.
Our emotions see-saw from worry, or distress, or depression, or worse, being distraught. Much of our emotional range results from another back-and-forth: How much do we go from the worldwide situation to our own personal lives, and how frequently, and how intensely on one or the other.
This, despite the positives — there are so many people reaching out to relatives, friends, bare acquaintances, strangers. Individuals, small businesses, and corporations creatively doing things to overcome the Twilight Zone feelings of isolation and, in some ways, estrangement, and self-estrangement: chefs, Uber and Lyft, the internet carriers, the free-loan societies adjusting their rules and policies because of the catastrophe in the face of which we feel so helpless.
This is my starting point, namely what to do, and what might Jewish texts tell us to give us a bit of light in the great fog of the unknown. Let me make it clear. This is where simplistic, naïve teaching is of no value to us. None of these texts have the solution for our personal confusion, stress, and helplessness. Neither do they offer the panacea for the world’s suffering. Still, I offer them because some of them may offer some insight and relief.
Alef – The Mitzvah of Visiting the Sick: Rav Dimi said, “Whoever visits one who is sick contributes significantly to that person’s recovery.” (Nedarim 40a)
Is there any question in anyone’s mind that all those phone calls, e-mails, texts, and more are helpful? Albeit, this is being done virtually, but let us hope that when this all passes, we may continue in this manner, only without the telephone and electronic intermediaries. Face-to-face, person-to-person, free to shake hands, hug, and kiss on one or two cheeks according to your custom.
Bet – Rabbi Akiva does the Mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim: “Rabbi Chelbo became sick. Rabbi Kahana went out and proclaimed, “Rabbi Chelbo is sick.” Yet no one came. He [further] said, “Is there not this story: one of Rabbi Akiva’s students was sick, but the Sages did not come to visit. But Rabbi Akiva came to visit and then because they (the rest) swept and mopped the floor, he recovered. He said, “Rabbi/my teacher, you caused me to recover.” (Nedarim 39b-40a)
Two things: (1) The greatest of the Talmudic rabbis did not stay back, supervise and direct, or “just” teach his profound kind of Torah. He was “out there” doing. (2) Because of his status, people cleaned up Rabbi Chelbo’s place — such a little thing, one might think. Not so. The same for every time you call and say, can I go shopping for you? Let me pick up your prescription at the pharmacy. Just tell me what you need.
Each of us might find it useful to make an alphabet or two or three list of these things, these acts. Only let us not freeze up, be mental or emotional zombies, dysfunctional, Mitzvah-catatonic.
I believe that while they may not be the panacea or the solution, unquestionably are invaluable in this time of great crisis.