Going into quarantine means time to explore our hearts and souls

We may all have soon have an unaccustomed amount of time. Let's fill it well, says Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg

March 17, 2020 12:04

It’s a basic rule never to write about what you do not know. But that’s exactly part of the anxiety about the coronavirus: the uncertainty, the unknown.

How do we prepare, not just practically but emotionally, communally and spiritually?

Most of us are unused to anything like this. It takes us back to earlier ages when one could not assume freedom of movement or (relative) safety from infection. A few injections and we have been happy to go almost anywhere in the world. It’s chastening to realise this may not be the case.

The statement by Israel’s Chief Rabbi, David Lau, that it’s “An isur gamur, an absolute prohibition” to endanger others if we have even the smallest cause to think we have the virus, establishes an essential ground rule.

The Torah teaches “ve-nishmartem me’od le-nafshoteichem,” that we must take great care of our lives and health. We must not put ourselves, or others, at unnecessary risk.

This means following government instructions, which could involve the closure of schools and shuls, as in Italy and the States. It requires taking special care of vulnerable family and friends.

For example, grandchildren returning from universities where they interact with people from many countries need to be thoughtful around elderly grandparents.

It entails particular concern for those with low immunity. It will involve some of us going into self-isolation or compulsory quarantine.

This evokes frightening thoughts. The Torah describes how lepers are sent “outside the camp”, where they must cover their mouths and cry out “unclean, unclean”. “Leper” remains a metaphor for those we shun; we have become nervous of too much proximity, in the tube, in crowds, at simchas.

This week is Shabbat Parah, when we read the rules of decontamination. While the rituals remain arcane, the principle has become disturbingly relevant, in kitchens, cafés and at Kiddush.

But the Talmud understands the isolated person’s call differently: it’s an appeal to God and the community for kindness and consideration. This is where we must start: who around us needs our solidarity and prayers?

Our hearts go out first and foremost to the grieving and to those who are ill. Our thoughts are also with those looking after them, everyone who works in healthcare and those whose services we often scarcely acknowledge: food providers, delivery and rubbish collection personnel.

As neighbours and communities, we should be in contact with anyone especially vulnerable or anxious. Do we have their correct mobile numbers and email addresses? Synagogues are considering what to offer virtually, by streaming or zoom. Some of us may find ourselves with an unaccustomed amount of time; we’ll want to fill it well.

I’ve been wondering how I’d cope with 14 days alone in a room. Could this become a period of Teshuvah, not in the sense of repentance for sin, but in the deeper meaning of return, of turning inwards to reflect? Could I make this an opportunity to notice little, special things I miss in my daily rush?

That’s what Zack Dinnerstein and Lisa Tauber are doing, whose blog is published in the Forward: “I saw three beautiful green parrots fly by…The quarantine has given us these parrots and now we’ll always know to look for them.”

Perhaps this could be a time to revisit, in thought or online, places and memories we cherish, a holiday or garden, or reread a beloved book. Missing our habitual interactions with them may make us better appreciate people we take for granted, including close family. It’s never too late to value more deeply the companions and experiences life has given us.

Spoilt by plenty, we’re also realising the value of basics: bread, potatoes, toilet paper. This should deepen our concern for those who habitually don’t have: homeless people, refugees, children who go to school hungry. They’re closer to us than we may think.

I asked a colleague who teaches meditation: “Could you offer instruction online?” Obliged to retreat from the outside world, this could be a chance to explore our hearts and souls.

Community is irreplaceable. It’s where we pray, read Torah, learn what’s happening in our friends’ lives. But if, for a while, we have to turn from community to communion, we may emerge stronger in solidarity, spirit and values. 

Jonathan Wittenberg is the Rabbi of the New North London Synagogue

March 17, 2020 12:04

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