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What now?

Ten suggestions for this time of plague

Congregation B’nai Israel, Emerson, Conservative

When I was a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Harlan Wexler gave a class on “Books Every Rabbi Should Read.” In one lecture, he referred to a pair of books that often are talked about together: “The Jewish Way In Love and Marriage” and “The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning.” Both were written by Rabbi Maurice Lamm.

Rabbi Wexler advised: “‘The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning’ is an important book. ‘The Jewish Way In Love and Marriage’ is a good book, but not as useful.” Taking the bait, one of the students asked why. With a sly smile and a memorable instruction about a young rabbi’s own usefulness, Rabbi Wexler replied: “Because rarely will someone run up to you and say, “Rabbi! Rabbi! I’m in love. What should I do?’”

We can laugh about this in relation to marriage and rabbinic training, but in relation to death — or pandemics — it’s not so funny. A sense of meaning and a way to order the world — so badly needed now — are at the very core of what religion is and what it offers. People of every level of religious observance and engagement turn to tradition when death arrives, or even looms. We need help, direction, protocols. What do I do now?

By now, I think we all recognize that we are facing more than a novel virus, more than an economic and health crisis. We are facing fear, stress, loss, and even trauma. We are facing disruption of plans and expectations at every possible level. We are facing uncertainty over the way key systems — economic, health care, educational, and governmental — will function now and in the future. Even as we are more isolated, we are facing our shared vulnerabilities. Literally and figuratively, no one is immune.

This crisis affects every aspect of our humanity; our emotional, social, and spiritual wellbeing, as much as our financial soundness and physical health.

Importantly, we already have heard a lot from health and government officials about what we must and must not do. We potentially are a threat to one another.

For me, and for those now reaching out to me and to other rabbis, the open question is: What can I do? We are potentially one another’s best hope. Community is more important now that ever. Spiritual support is vital. Jews (including many who do not regularly attend brick and mortar synagogues) are connecting to support and be supported by one another.

In the midst of this difficult trial, we have the opportunity to give and receive encouragement and help, empathy and inspiration, gratitude and good cheer. Those who share a household can increase not only the quantity but the quality of time they share. With lives at stake, with so much stripped away from our routines and our busy-ness, we all can better discern what is essential.

We can. But “can” does not necessarily mean “will.” We instead may choose to distract ourselves with toxic amounts of Netflix. Or seek the illusion of safety in stockpiling. Or engage in what social scientists call “narcotized dysfunction” — immersing ourselves so completely in news of the virus that we are rendered numb and inactive. That, too, can happen if we spend all our discretionary time following the news and the Twittersphere obsessively.

So, understanding how hard this all his, and knowing that needs — and advice — may change, here are my top 10 suggestions for what you can do now.

1. Practice self-care — religiously. Not self-indulgence, not self-sacrifice, but self-care: a Maimonidean golden mean of wisely and lovingly choosing what is in your ultimate best interest. This requires honoring both your current situation and your future self. “Only guard yourself and guard your soul very much” (Deut. 4:9) is interpreted to mean that it is a mitzvah to care for your body, as well as your soul. The next time you exercise, take medicine, sip green tea, go to bed on time, or even wash your hands, know that our tradition considers those not only good choices, but holy ones.

Ask yourself regularly: What will help focus and calm my mind? What will protect and nourish my soul? Act on your good ideas and impulses. Make your wellbeing a high priority. Remember, self-care is a mitzvah.

2. Connect. People are connecting more deeply with loved ones, whether they are near or far. With commutes, events, and errands canceled, many people have more time to talk. We have both an acute need and a special opportunity to truly listen and be heard.

Many of us are on screens for work and school. It is a welcome change to spend actual (not virtual) face time with the people sharing our households. If there are friends or relatives who you haven’t spoken with lately, now is a wonderful time to reconnect. You may choose to reach out and heal a rift or reconnect with someone from your distant past. Our tradition teaches that isolation can be deadly, while friendship and being known make life worth living (Ta’anit 23a). Rabbi Marc Soloway recently said, “Social distancing is a misnomer. We should be talking about physical distancing, social connecting, and spiritual deepening.” Amen!

3. Acknowledge the good. Dr. Maria Sirois, a professor of positive psychology, likes to say, “Even on the worst day, there is a best moment.” The Modim prayer prompts us to notice and acknowledge that God’s “wonders and goodnesses are with us in every time, evening, morning, and noon.”

For valid, self-protective reasons, we tend to notice what goes wrong. It is all too easy to take for granted what goes right. Say a bracha. Keep a gratitude journal. Write a thank you note and then Facetime or Skype the recipient and read it to them. Only by acknowledging the good can we really take it in.

In the worst of times — at hospice bedsides, in emergency rooms, during grief, economic crises and, yes, pandemics — even small kindnesses and blessings sometimes come into sharp relief against a background of pain. Pain intrudes; don’t let the blessings go by unnoticed.

4. Seek inspiration and cultivate wonder. We can easily be riveted by clickbait and other empty or toxic communication, but we can also choose to seek out — and send — messages and images of hope, beauty, and awe. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel set an amazing example to live by, in deeds and words: “Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” And Heschel went further: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and [God] gave it to me.”

5. Learn. Some people have more discretionary time now; others are doing full-time work with young kids at home. Regardless, learning with the people in your household, on your own, or with an online class or chavruta (study partner) can be uplifting and restorative. Ask Rabbi Google to refer you to online classes and tutorial videos in any subject or skill. “Torah,” narrowly defined, means the scroll in the ark or the five books of Moses. More broadly, it means any form of Jewish learning, or holy learning and wisdom from any field or endeavor that promotes human growth and creativity.

To study and connect with the wider Jewish community, join a joint-learning venture such as Daf Yomi (learning a page of Talmud each day) or Project 929 (reading, with guidance from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and people working with him, five chapters of Bible each week). Local synagogues, mine included, are adding online learning opportunities all the time.

6. Pray. Joyce Meyer, a Christian Bible teacher, gently teases folks by pointing out that religious people will say, “I’ve done everything I know how to do! Now, I guess all I can do is pray.” She adds, “Is praying some kind of last resort? It’s the first thing we should do.”

Don’t reserve spontaneous or traditional prayers for when you are desperate. Prayer can center you, remind you of what is important, and how much we — still — have to be grateful for. Of course, prayer also is a mitzvah.

What prayers or verses have comforted you in the past? What psalms might you discover as especially meaningful now — if you give yourself time and permission to explore? How might you incorporate (more) blessings into your morning or nighttime routines, or before the lunch you may now be eating in a new place, with different company. The morning Modeh Ani morning prayer and the nighttime Shema are brief, familiar to many Jews, and especially comforting and grounding for children.

7. Meditate. Jewishspirituality.org has beautiful resources for Jewish meditation, including a collection called “Resources for Challenging Times.” Many downloads are free, and others are being offered at a 50 percent discount. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s classic “Introduction to Jewish Meditation” is a great book to download and read now.

Even small amounts of meditation help to cultivate calm and hope and enable practitioners to greet worry with loving awareness and curiosity, rather than panic. Meditation does not necessarily and immediately quiet the mind, but it creates greater spaciousness between thoughts. Meditators observe thoughts and judgments more and identify with them less. Depending on the practice (chanting, following the breath, imagining Hebrew letters), meditators can learn to focus the mind.

Whether or not you engage in a formal meditation practice, you can use repetitive physical habits to focus and calm the mind. When washing your hands, for example, focus on the sensations of the water and soap, notice your breathing, and the sounds and smells. Or take the first few bites of your food very slowly and mindfully. Discern the flavors and enjoy the sensations in your mouth, throat, and belly. Or, whenever the phone rings, take one deep, calming breath before you answer.

8. Bring joy to others. Share jokes, stories, games, recipes, and smiles. Since they began staying in place, my mother and brother have done the New York Times crossword puzzle together on the phone most days. Reach out to those whose celebrations have been truncated or postponed. Tune in, remotely, to an at-home bar mitzvah. It is a mitzvah to cause brides and grooms to rejoice — even, and perhaps especially, if their ceremonies have to be small, or later.

9. Serve and help others by doing something new. Be on the lookout for opportunities to help. Can you reach out — from six or more feet away — to neighbors you may not yet have met or talked to? A public group on Facebook named “Quarantine Assistance” can connect those able to offer help with those who need it. If you are in good health and weigh at least 110 pounds, you can donate blood safely, and blood is in short supply. Call the Community Blood Bank in Paramus to make an appointment or learn more: (201) 251-3703. Of course, check with your rabbi, the federation, and the Jewish Standard for updates on how you can be of service. And if you need help, it’s a mitzvah to accept it!

10. Serve and help others in familiar ways. Organizations you support and believe in may need extra volunteers and donations. If you are in a position to continue giving or to give more, that is a wonderful mitzvah. A generous mental health professional in my synagogue recently offered his time and talent to fellow congregants.

If your income is stable, consider continuing to pay people you usually employ by the hour who can’t do their work, such as house cleaners and babysitters. Keep checking in with friends or relatives whom you have been supporting through problems that have nothing to do with the coronavirus. People who suffer from chronic conditions or were recently bereaved need more support now, not less. Buy from local and mom-and-pop businesses as much as you can. Support advertisers in the Jewish Standard.

Finally, let me know your ideas about what we can do for and with one another, so that I can join and support you.

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