Richard D. Zelin

Reflections on the Pandemic: Speeding up and Slowing Down

In this past week’s double portion, Mattot-Mas’ei, the Israelites are approaching the Promised Land but they are not quite there yet; they are still in the proverbial wilderness. Like our forbearers, we too are still in the wilderness as far as the coronavirus pandemic is concerned. While the situation in Illinois has been mainly under control, there’s still lots of doubt, uncertainty and trepidation about what’s to come. There’s still a chance for a spike later this summer, if not a second wave in the fall. So, we are not out of the woods yet. This terrible crisis, of course, has been exacerbated by the recent tragic death of George Floyd.

As I reflect on the past several months, I realize I’ve had two contradictory experiences in what my wife and I jokingly refer to as our Covid captivity. You may have encountered something similar yourself. On a professional level, things have markedly sped up. Currently, as some of you know, I work for the American Friends of Magen David Adom (AFMDA). AFMDA is one of the primary vehicles of philanthropic support for Magen David Adom, which is Israel’s national EMS, blood services and international relief organization. Since March, MDA has played a leading – and at least initially very successful – role in responding to coronavirus outbreak in Israel. As a result, our workload has mushroomed and, because of the virus’s harmful presence here, the way we do “business” has significantly changed.

Like other Jewish organizations, the pandemic has meant working at home, no business travel, and the cancellation of all in-person meetings, events and programs. Like other Jewish organizations, it has meant moving much of our activities online. To help keep our supporters engaged and to foster a greater sense of community during these troubling times, has necessitated making more calls, writing more e-mails, and, yes, having innumerable Zoom meetings. In certain respects, this has been very energizing and exhilarating, but the pace of work has clearly quicken, if not become frenetic.

At the same time, with fewer personal errands to run and places to go, things have also paradoxically slowed down. This is especially the case on the weekends. Like perhaps you, I’ve found that I have much more time on my hands. This has given me an increased opportunity for reading, reflecting and absorbing life in a more profound way than I’ve been able to do before. To put it another way, it has heighten my awareness of things that I ordinarily take for granted. As a result, I’ve become more mindful and present in the moment. For example, with frequent walks and bike rides to get relief from being at home so much, I’ve acquired a renewed and greater appreciation for the splendors of nature, as well as for the soothing and relaxing effect of music, whether it be classical or contemporary.

I’ve also found that this “being in the moment” phenomenon has also occurred when I’ve been engaged Jewishly, including participation in recent Festival and Shabbat services, as well as in various learning opportunities, which are now online. In fact, along with Beth El’s wonderful Zoom services, I’ve been able to take advantage of the synagogue’s amazing and dizzying array of resources and programming. With more time for study and reflection, I’ve been able to gain not only a deeper understanding, appreciation and significance of each week’s Torah portions but also of certain prayers as well.

For example, thanks to one of the synagogue’s stimulating online offerings, I gained a subtle insight into the Hashkivenu prayer, the first blessing after the Shma in the Maariv service, where we praise God for peace and protection. Here’s some key lines of the text: “Help us our Father, to lie down in peace; and awaken us to life again…Shield us from enemies and pestilence, from starvation, sword and sorrow. Remove the evil forces that surround us, shelter us in the shadow of your wings…Guard our coming and going, grant us life and peace, now and always.” This, of course, couldn’t be a more appropriate thing to ask for in light of the Covid-19’s potential deadly force.

Over the years, I’ve probably recited this prayer thousands of times but never fully understood and appreciated its true meaning or relevance until this study session. Indeed, I learned that prior to the advent of electricity, it was particularly comforting as darkness – and the frightening unknown to come – descended at nighttime. For me, it was especially poignant because I heard about this, too, at a scary moment: amid reports of a large upsurge in coronavirus cases in the city and around the country. Like those without electricity, we are largely in the dark about how this pandemic will eventually play out, so developing a richer and deeper understanding of this prayer has given me some measure of solace.

In sum, I’ve come away from these synagogue activities spiritually enriched, comforted and uplifted, which has helped me deal with the current situation, for which I am deeply grateful. What’s more, as others have observed, I’ve also come away from my Beth El (and other Jewish) involvements feeling more connected than ever before, even though we have been physically apart.

Beyond these personal experiences, what does all of this mean for the future of the Jewish community? That, of course, is a big looming question. At this point, it would be foolish to even venture a guess. We are likely years away from when the dust will finally settle. Indeed, God only knows what the outcome of all of this is going to be. But there is one thing of which I am certain. Beth El will emerge on the other side of this pandemic even stronger, as an even more vibrant, joyful, caring and welcoming place.

After forty trying years in the wilderness, our ancestors ultimately reached the Promised Land, with a vision of creating a just and compassionate society. While we ourselves are very far from that ideal, my hope and prayer is that metaphorically speaking, we get to the Promised Land, in the wake of this virulent pandemic and George Floyd’s disturbing death, real soon.

As the book of Numbers comes to a close, Hazak Hazak Vnithazek!

Note: This is a slightly revised version of a D’var Torah delivered at Zoom Shabbat services on July 18, 2020 at North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park, Illinois.

About the Author
Richard D. Zelin, Ph.D., is a frequent contributor to various Jewish publications. He serves in a senior level Jewish communal position in the Chicago area. The views expressed are his own.