Staying Healthy and Whole During a Pandemic – Thoughts from a doctor and a rabbi

These past months have challenged humans across the planet, as the COVID crisis affects us all. In physical, emotional, psychological, social and spiritual challenges, we experience new problems that are different and in many cases worse than we had before. As a physician and a rabbi, our professional roles frequently intersect with others who are experiencing daily combinations of despair and anxiety.

Throughout history, plagues and pandemics have created tremendous fear. The bubonic plague, measles, smallpox, and flu pandemics made millions sick. Fear though infected everyone. As Philip Alcabes noted in his bestseller book, DREAD, pandemics unleash new fears, new enemies, and even new behaviors. Physical/social distancing was not even a term we spoke about 4 months ago. Neither did we seriously consider virtual dates, virtual dinners, and even virtual Jewish weddings. It is truly awful that when funerals need to occur on-line, we must limit mourners or we are not able to give hugs to those we love.

As a physician and a Rabbi, we deal with fear and uncertainty in our professional roles frequently, and we hope by sharing to stimulate healing conversations and actions.

A Health Perspective

The COVID pandemic is a painful disease and unparalleled for most in its dual health and economic impacts. Our communities are filled with people who have lost a family member or friend, those who have lost jobs, whose children are now unemployed, and who have laid off employees or have businesses that are closed. Despite this pain, the disease is still a disease, not the definition of us as people. Susan Sontag, in ILLNESS AS METAPHOR, talks about tuberculosis, cancer, and eventually AIDS, as diseases, with real consequences and treatments. The diseases are not punishment or curses, but diseases that can eventually be treated. COVID will have a cure in the future.  But for now, patients and families suffering with COVID need total support: hearing, listening and respecting.

Empathy is not sympathy. It does not say, “I know how you feel.” It does say, “I hear your feelings,” and “I thank you for sharing your feelings with me.” With COVID, we can offer empathy to anyone who needs it. It’s free and easy to do. Howard Spiro, in his book, EMPATHY AND THE PRACTICE OF MEDICINE, describes how empathy contributes to people feeling better, both those expressing their feelings and those empathizing. If we not alone when we share, how much more community can we create when we empathize. We can share our feelings, confident that there are others who will empathize with us.

Finally, we can usually offer some reassurance. COVID is awful for those at increased risk, and too many have also died on the front lines. Still, can suggest that our patients and congregations worry a little less, letting them know that can do some worrying for them, as we get paid to worry. While we do worry lots, we know that most people do get better with COVID, that physical distancing and frequent hand washing decrease the chances of becoming infected, and that the number of scientists working on finding medications and vaccinations to protect against COVID is large and growing.

Our parents used to advise us to “worry about things we could do something about.” In a wonderful guide about Living With Worry and Anxiety Amidst Global Uncertainty, the authors discuss only allowing worry to occur for a little time each day, to postpone it in other times, and to come up with things to help rather than worry. In this spirit, it may help to worry less about things in the current crisis we cannot control and focus more on things we can control. Helping friends. Helping patients. Helping family. Writing letters and supportive words. Connecting people and resources.

A Faith Perspective

The perspective of faith and the Jewish tradition also offers insights to fear and uncertainty. In a teaching from Rabbi David Jafee of the Institute of Jewish Spirituality, he reflects about the Hebrew root for bitachon is ב ט ח ( meaning trust and security. For rabbis, while the ultimate source of security is God, there is a continuum as it relates to faith. Some people move through life filled with total trust; others with anxiety and worry. Neither extreme is good – bitachon means balancing trust in God while taking initiative.

We can find inspiration on initiative in Exodus, where the story of manna occurs, in which God says, “I will rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a certain portion every day, that I may test them whether they will follow my Torah or not” Exodus 16:4). God could just give the people their food but requires them both to take initiative and collect it for themselves. Living through a pandemic requires human initiative of a different sort – rather than “going out” to collect manna, we are required to “stay in”, helping our society flatten the curve and prevent health systems from being overwhelmed. Yet, as we physically distance ourselves, we must take initiative to remain socially connected by computer and phones, texts and email.

This moment also requires trust, such as trust that the manna will be there day after day. The prophet Jeremiah teaches, “Blessed is the person who trusts in God, and whose hope is God. That one will be like a tree planted by waters, that spreads out its roots by the river, and shall not see when the heat comes, but its leaf shall be green; and shall not be anxious in the year of drought, nor shall it cease from yielding fruit” (Jeremiah 17:17-18). Notice that Jeremiah is not promising perfect weather – heat and droughts will come. But when we trust in God, we have resources – shade, water and social connections – to continue to survive and even flourish in life’s most difficult times. Ironically, trust in God is perhaps simultaneously the opposite of initiative. It is often not something we find, but rather something that finds us.

In Judaism, life and breath are infinitely valuable. So too are the millions of front-line workers do so much to preserve life. People who continue to counsel. People who continue to protect. People who continue to treat.  People who continue to provide medications and supplies. People who serve food and volunteer.

As we prepare to celebrate Shavuot, this pandemic proves again we are stronger as a community when we stand together.  We are stronger when we make space for our souls.  We are stronger when we remember that a voice of eternity urges us to continue to trust in God and know hat this difficult time will come to an end. In the words of the psalmist:

The rivers may rise and rage, The waters may pound and roar, The floods may spread and storm: Above the crash of the sea and its breakers, Adonai stands supreme…” (Psalm 93)

Dr. Adam Goldstein

Rabbi Daniel Greyber

About the Author
Dr. Goldstein is a Family Physician and public health researcher who resides in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Dr. Goldstein lectures about medical ethics, substance abuse, and health policy, including co-hosting a syndicated, weekly one hour radio show on health, healing, medical care and patient empowerment.