Jonathan Muskat

Visualizing Our Spiritual Future after COVID-19

With the frenzy of Pesach behind us, we are looking to turn the corner.  We want to return.  We want to return to our places of work, to our friends’ homes, to our playgrounds, to our restaurants and to our synagogues.  We want to return.

But to what kind of world will we return?  There have been numerous articles that address this question.  Some articles suggest that there will be greater support for employees and mental health issues, greater emphasis on company culture, greater flexibility as to workplace environment, greater comfort with technology and an expansion of telecommuting and online learning.

As a Rabbi, I am particularly interested in what our spiritual world will look like when we return.  Will we better appreciate our relationships with our close friends and family members with whom we must maintain social distancing during this time?  Or will we return from this pandemic without any change in a desire to improve these relationships?  What about our shuls and our Yeshivot?  Will we return to our shuls with a new commitment to attend shiurim and tefilla b’tzibbur on a more regular basis or have we gotten used to perhaps sleeping in Shabbat morning when there is no pressure anymore to come to shul on time?  Will shul life after COVID-19 feature more people learning Torah via Zoom shiurim or will it simply feature a decrease in in-person shiurim?  Will we return to shul more committed or less committed to God and to our community?  Or will the situation be same old same old?   Have we even thought about this question?  Now is our opportunity to dream!

Indeed, dreaming is one of the functions of prayer.  When we pray, the term that is used is “tefillah.”  When Yaakov Avinu is on his deathbed, Yosef, his long-lost son with whom he has been reunited at the end of his life, comes to see him.  Yaakov says, “ra’oh fanecha lo pilalti,” which Rashi interprets to mean, “I never filled my heart with imagining or even dreaming I would ever see you again.”  Thus, “palel,” the root of the word tefillah, means to wish, to aspire, or to dream.  That is what we do when we pray.  Yes, we ask God for a brighter future, but the verb “hitpallel” is reflexive, because when we pray we engage in a reflective process when we struggle with what we dream about, what a brighter future looks like.

When Hannah prayed to God for a son, she didn’t simply pray, but she also made a vow to dedicate the child to God.  Our Sages characterized this vow as a prayer, because prayer is not only about requesting a beautiful from God, but it’s about committing ourselves to dedicating that future to the service of God.

And now is our opportunity to pray, to reflect, to think and to dream.  Sometimes when we take a step back and remove ourselves from a situation, we have an opportunity to reflect and think about that situation.  But as we know, reflecting, thinking and dreaming about something are very different than acting on those reflections, thoughts and dreams.  Maybe we have a different view about how our relationships should be.  Maybe we have a different view about how our religious life, and specifically our communal and synagogue life, should be.  But how do we turn these thoughts, visions and dreams into reality when we do return?

I think the key to change is to actually visualize these thoughts, visions and dreams.  Psychologists have been using visual imagery to help people change.  People who want to learn to shoot basketball hoops have shown considerable improvement just by visualizing shooting baskets in their heads.  Simply visualizing playing the piano can actually improve someone’s ability to play a piece.  When we visualize being able to do something in our head, we greatly improve our chances of being able to do it in real life.  If we can picture and describe what that future looks like and if we can actually begin to feel that experience as if it were real, then that will enhance our chances of making these changes.  When we create a mental image of the change we want to achieve, two important psychological shifts takes place. First, we increase our motivation to enact that new behavior. When I picture myself making a siyum over something new I’ve learned, I imagine the satisfaction and pride I will feel. I get excited about the prospect of achieving this goal. Secondly, creating a specific mental image of ourselves performing a desired behavior increases our self-efficacy, or the belief that we are capable of doing it.

In Hilchot Teshuva (2:4), the Rambam writes that one of the ways of repentance is changing our name as if to say, “I am another person and I am not the same person who has done those things.”  We visualize ourselves as different people as a mechanism to achieve change.

We will return to “normal,” but the new normal might be very different.  And now, as we pray for a brighter future, we have the opportunity to reflect, aspire and dream of a better spiritual future for ourselves and our communities and if we can take the time now to truly visualize what that future looks like, then our return can be more powerful than we could have ever imagined before this pandemic.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.
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