“We’re all in this together,” I have certainly read and heard this line many times over since the start of the global pandemic. But are we truly “in this together”?
While we may have all experienced the same “storm”, I don’t agree that we are all in the same boat.
We are all gifted with a unique “toolbox” which includes our own distinctive strengths and weaknesses. Consequently, the effects of the pandemic have been manifold, and have impacted everyone in different ways and to varying degrees.
Some have experienced ill-health; others have been spared from the full brunt of the pandemic. Many have experienced economic devastation; others have profited from these unique circumstances. Some families have been torn apart on account of the additional stresses they bare, while other families have become closer throughout this period.
We may never know the full extent of the mental-health costs of the pandemic, but we know for certain that every person’s experience of the tensions and traumas of the past year are different and unique.
What is common to almost everyone on the planet is the sudden shift in our otherwise steady and secure lives.
Regardless of the specific effects that this pandemic has had, it is encouraging to observe the compassion that so many have exhibited during this time. Ultimately, we have all been experiencing this “storm” together, and for many of us, this has raised our level of empathy and appreciation for the plight of our fellow.
This idea is brilliantly alluded to by Joseph in the Torah portion of Miketz.
After lingering in an Egyptian prison for years, the day finally arrives when he is remembered by Pharaohs cupbearer. Pharaoh has just experienced a terrible dream and is seeking an adequate interpretation.
It was Joseph who was called upon to decipher Pharaoh’s dreams: “there will be seven prosperous years followed by seven years of famine”.
Joseph then added, “Pharaoh should appoint an understanding and intelligent man over Egypt,” to be responsible of gathering the produce of the seven prosperous years for distribution during the subsequent years of famine.
Our sages wondered, why was it necessary to appoint “an understanding and intelligent man”? It seems that any responsible and well organised manager could have done an acceptable job. One does not need to be a genius to oversee the storage of grains.
One explanation given is that in order to succeed at this job, the person responsible would have to have sufficient insight and empathy to sense the impact and the devastation that the upcoming hunger would afflict on the world’s population.
Joseph’s unsolicited advice to Pharaoh was that only one who had themselves experienced lack, would be the right candidate for this vital mission.
If the manager had not themselves felt the preciousness of a scrap of food, or the anguish of a parent who’s children are hungry, or the anxiety of not knowing what the future will bring, then such a person would not qualify to be humankind’s custodian. Such a person was simply incapable of being the world’s caretaker, until they themselves had experienced hunger and famine.
Therefore, Joseph advised Pharaoh to find an “understanding and intelligent person” to manage the preservation of the crops, because only such a person will value the importance of each grain. Only such a person would identify fully with the need of others.
So, as we struggle to find meaning in the trauma of this international pandemic, we would do well to retain any newfound compassion and sympathy that we have for the struggles of others.
It behooves us to be that much more understanding, that much more kind, and that much more thoughtful towards others, because now all of us, from all socio-economic backgrounds, with all of our diversity and different experiences are all, well and truly, “in this together”.