Six Jewish Takeaways from COVID-19

[Being as the Corona Virus is currently in our thoughts most of the day, I have to chosen to write about it in a practical way. Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha comes afterward.]

Six Jewish Takeaways from COVID-19We are all at wits end trying to manage in these challenging times. The Talmud (Yevomot 63a) tells us that when suffering comes to the world, we Jews are supposed take note. I’m no prophet nor do I know of any, so it would be absurd to attempt to explain the chaos in which we have been thrust. However, as always, classic Jewish sources are able to shed light and even inspiration on what’s going on. Here are a few practical lessons concerning six areas of life that we might not always find the time to think about.(1) FamilyDue to our hectic schedules, sometimes we neglect the people most important to us. Now that we are forced to be home, let us take the opportunity to connect and have the conversations we never have time for with our family members. In an AP poll, 75% of Americans listed family as the number one key to happiness. The prophet Isaiah instructs us on the importance of placing family first.Spread your bread for the hungry, and bring the groaning poor to your house, when you see an exposed man, clothe him, but from your own flesh do not hide. (Isaiah, 58:7).Although it is incumbent upon us to feed, clothe, and support the poor, family comes first. Our priorities must be loyal to our immediate relatives’ well-being before anyone else. This is why it is a mitzvah to give charity to a relative first, before considering anyone else’s request. It’s easy to forget how important these people are in our lives. Morrie Schwartz (Tuesdays with Morrie) once shared an insight that came to him late in life.The fact is, there is no foundation, no secure ground, upon which people may stand today if it isn’t the family. It’s become quite clear to me as I’ve been sick. If you don’t have the support and love and caring and concern that you get from a family, you don’t have much at all.Practical Step: Think about 1) how much you appreciate your family (even though they are not exactly as would like them to be) and 2) spend time with them conversing for no reason other than strengthening what is probably the most important relationship in your life.    (2) FriendshipJob is an ancient Jewish book focusing on a question that bothers most of us. According to one opinion in the Talmud, Moses authored this fictional story to address the topic of why bad things happen to good people. Job was a righteous man but the Satan protested to the Almighty that Job is righteous only because things were going well for him, his family, and business. The Satan made a sort of wager with God; he asked the Almighty’s permission to bring severe afflictions onto Job to prove that he would not remain loyal if he wouldn’t have the idyllic life to which he had become accustomed. Permission was granted and severe afflictions immediately befell him. The next time we find Job, he has boils from head to toe and is using a pottery shard to scrape himself as he sits among ashes; he is visited by his three loyal friends. When Job was a wealthy man, he had many friends but after he had lost everything, only these three remained with him. The Talmud (Bava Batra 16b) relates a popular folk saying indicating that these friends are the paradigm for friendship: “Either friends like Job’s or death.”   The question is, if the Satan ruined Job’s health, afflicted him, took away his livelihood and eventually his children, why didn’t he also take away his friends? The answer is that by doing so he would have killed Job, but he was only given permission to afflict him. A life without friends, without personal interactions and people to share our highs and lows with, is not a life.  Being stuck at home is tough; we miss the social interactions of seeing people at the J, synagogue, kiddush, and other events-we miss seeing our friends.  Some are at home without caretakers, others don’t have anyone to shop for them, and others are simply lonely or alone. COVID-19 is a physical sickness but being isolated can lead to depression. From Job we learn that as bad as physical ailments are, nothing is as wounding as isolation without friends.Practical Step: Spend 15 seconds a day being thankful for your friends. They are always there for you, how have you been (recently) there for them? Also, think of people new to town; can you be a resource to help them find friends in our community?(3) HumilityAnother take away from COVID-19 is instilling ourselves with a sense of humility. We have grown accustomed to being secure and feeling we are in control of everything. But now something we can’t even see has brought down the world’s economy and drastically changed our lives. Doctors say they don’t have the answers or a vaccine. We are being reminded that with all the wisdom we have been given, with all the research, with all the personal gifts and talents we possess, we just don’t know. This isn’t the only illness people have not been able to cure but this one is in our face.Practical Step: Think for a moment, “I am not in control; how many other people or situations in my life am I powerless over?” Is it a child who is leading a life far different than you had ever expected? Is it caring for an aging parent and thinking, ‘I didn’t sign up for this?’ One of the greatest pieces of wisdom I ever heard on this topic came from a Rabbi whose son was a heroin addict. He (the father) lived every day with the mantra he had learned in Al Anon; “I didn’t cause it. I can’t control it. I can’t cure it.” We need to live with the reality that some things in life are not in our power to change. This, in turn, will enable us to learn how to be accepting and tolerant of others.(4) The Gift of GivingA beautiful conclusion emerges from this challenging period. The extreme measures all of us are taking are for other people, those who are older or have compromised immune systems. COVID-19 will not be fatal for the overwhelming majority of the American population but we have a sense of responsibility and are willing to take these measures. We do this because we care about others. Abide by the rules not because you think something will happen to you, but because you feel a sense of responsibility. The feeling for others should occupy our lives. The reason you are willing to have your life put in chaos is because you don’t want to contaminate people who are vulnerable. As the sage Hillel said, “if I am not for myself, who will be for me. But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when (Pirkei Avot 1:14)Practical Step: Ask yourself, how can I in some small way be there for someone else? Here’s one suggestion: Make two calls this week to people you haven’t spoken with in a while, people who will really appreciate your having thought of them. Listen to them, even if it means hearing them kvetch. This means much more to people than you realize.(5) PrayerAccording to Ramban (1194-1270) the only time the Torah commands one to pray is during a time of distress (Sefer Hamitzvot 5).  It is a mitzva to speak to your Creator; ask Him to put the pieces back together again.Practical Step: Pray in your own words. Jews for thousands of years have prayed to the Almighty during difficult times; One can pray anywhere; it does not have to be at the synagogue. Give it a try, see how it feels.(6) Being Jewish out of the synagogue.Just because synagogues close, doesn’t mean Judaism can’t continue to thrive. Our Jewish identity and practices are not primarily done in the Synagogue; the only thing we do there is pray. However, the survival of Judaism over the centuries has been a result of creating and maintaining a Jewish home; so much of Judaism revolves around the family we create, the food we eat, the stories we tell, and how we interact with the people in our lives. The idea that Judaism should permeate our lives, with or without a synagogue, led to a radical proposal by a Rabbi in the first part of 19thcentury Germany, who suggested (perhaps, theoretically) closing all synagogues in order to dramatically emphasize the idea that Judaism embraces the totality of Jewish life; the halls of prayer and worship are one part of Judaism, the rest happens when one leaves.  Practical Step: Ask yourself, how can I strengthen my Jewish identity outside of the synagogue? If you have an answer, ask your Rabbi for the most effective way to implement your plan. If you don’t have an answer, ask your Rabbi a suggestion.Let’s use these homebound experiences as opportunities to learn more about ourselves and the incredible people who have helped to create our personal and collective Jewish past and use their wisdom to create a Jewish future.