The world we knew

Less than two weeks ago we hosted six Shabbat dinner guests.  What were we thinking?

In life, change is constant.  But not change like this.  Nothing may be new under the sun, but that is not how it feels now.

Our minds don’t judge instability and change well.  “It never rained like this before!” we announce.  “Never!”  Or: “Crime was never so bad!”  Often enough, it did and it was.

I saw this at work all the time.  “My skin never itched like this!” a man would say.  The novelty worried him more than the itch.

“Actually, you were here six years ago, for the same thing….”

“I was?”

Another human cognitive glitch.  Something for Daniel Kahneman to codify and canny merchants to monetize.

Yet there are indeed changes, even if not at the deepest level, that play out over long spans.  Careers—when not cut short—last 30-40 years.  Those nearing the end of that time sense that things are different from when they started: new techniques, new regulations, new people with new attitudes.  What used to matter and make sense no longer does.  They themselves used to fit in but no longer do.  Then, like the frog in the slowly-warming pot, they jump out if they still can.

But those changes take years.  The ones we are living through now take hours.

Daniel Defoe wrote A Journal of the Plague Year in 1722 about the London plague of 1665.  His book reads like today’s news.  People’s first reaction: “Those cases are all the way on the other side of town!  Plague won’t come to my street!”  Escape of the wealthy to the countryside.  (They didn’t call it “off the grid” then.)  Restrictions on foreign travel.  (Defoe’s brother was a merchant just back from Portugal.)  Proliferating quacks and seers of portents.  Draconian—often futile—attempts at quarantine.  Heroism by preachers, healers, and regular folk.  Heedless behavior of scoffers, which stopped when the scoffers died.

And this: “We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours…and to improve them by the invention of men….things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.”

Fake news.  Disruptive technology.  Humans acting like angels.  Humans acting like wolves.  Never happened before.  Never!

Reading Defoe is interesting, though not reassuring.  He wrote the story after he knew how it turned out.  London did get back to normal.  Will we?  And what will normal be?

Today we sit in social isolation, knit by technology.  We obsess over mundane matters: Where to get milk and tissues?  We worry about our families, our friends, our communities.  In a shul community we see our friends weekly, perhaps daily.    When will we meet in person again?

Underlying such questions is this deeper one: When will our social order, unraveling at warp speed, go back to what we recall as normal?  Ever?

When the coronavirus pandemic is over, what will the world look like?  Will parents still spend $60,000 a year for college tuition plus board, books, and Bud Lite, when the learned professor did such a fine job on Zoom?    When anything can be delivered next day, will anyone shop in stores, or will already-emptying malls be repurposed as soccer pitches and al fresco Tai Chi studios?   Will anybody visit a doctor in person?  Will anybody want to?

Will we once again take a bus, or fly abroad?   Meet a friend for lunch or coffee?   Watch an NBA game in person, or for that matter on TV?  Will we host parties?  Make weddings?   Attend funerals and comfort the bereaved in person?  So much has vanished, so fast.

Pesach is approaching.  My wife and I hoped that our far-flung children and grandchildren would join us this year.  They will not.

The other day my wife directed me to the website of a local liquor store running a sale on home-delivered wines and cordials for the holiday.  I perused the list feeling rather chipper.  After all, we had started the day scoring a jumbo pack of toilet paper at the market.  (In person: what were we thinking?)

Scanning the slivovitzes, I saw a fine French cognac selling for $54.50, and burst into tears.

Why?  I am hardly some faynshmeker of elegant spirits.

As we all know, Pesach conjures images, from childhood and beyond, many with strong personal resonance.  That banal line on the order form evoked this image:  Presenting my grand new bottle at a holiday meal and downing a generous shot; our sons taking dutiful sips; our daughters-in-law, who drink schnapps only once every third shmitta, shaking their heads at my odd, sketchy indulgence; the small grandchildren veering between being unbearably charming and being unbearable; the older ones gently blossoming before our eyes into warm and thoughtful people.  In short, all the glorious, noisy balagan of a family gathering for the holiday that brings Jews together as no other can.

Not this year.  Like Jews everywhere, we will be alone, not celebrating in joyous throngs but instead, as in fasts at times of public calamity, limiting our business, our building and planting, not even greeting one another in person but instead sitting silent and separate, kivnei adam hanezufin laMakom, like people rebuked by God.

This year.  What about next year?

My cognac-fueled discomposure was brief, replaced at once by practicalities.  To drown my self-pity, couldn’t I do as well with domestic rotgut at $13.99?

Most of us will get through this.  We have resources that bind us remotely.  Londoners who died in agony, padlocked in isolation, had no Netflix.  The virus is novel.  New technology helps.

But one thing that is not new is the deep wish that at some point life will return to what it was, and that we will be around to see it when it does.

When the dove dropped off an olive branch and absconded, Noach exited the ark with his kin and assorted passengers, gave thanks and heard a promise.  This was not a promise that there would be no more death and calamity.  Humanity has never lacked for either.  Rather, the promise was this:

Od kol yemei haaretz, as long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night—all the ordinary rhythms of the world, which the flood had obliterated–lo yishbotu, will never again cease.

Counting on a promise takes faith; the promise will be kept in its own time, not ours.  But this promise was given a long time and many cataclysms ago.  Other generations have come through far worse than we will, or can imagine, and seen the promise fulfilled.

Apart, together, so may we.

Chag Sameach.

About the Author
Avi Rockoff came on aliya with his wife Shuli in March 2022. They live in Jerusalem.