Jewish Wisdom and Teachings in the Time of Coronavirus

By Ellen Beck, MD

At our Seder, we ask, Where in the world is there oppression that must be addressed? How, this year, will I move from slavery to freedom? Covid-19 can feel oppressive. Bob Marley teaches,” We must emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, only we can free our minds.” Victor Frankl taught to choose our attitude towards events.

What do our sages teach? What advice can we draw from Jewish teachings?

Shelter in place.
Makom, the Hebrew word for place, is a name for G-d. In Exodus, Jacob says, “How full of wonder is this place, God was in this place, and I did not know.” We are in place. Let us seek the wonder.

Wash hands with soap and hot water, 20 seconds.
The Talmud teaches to wash hands before and after meals, after the bathroom, when changing clothes, and when touching unclean things. As we feel the water on our hands, we can take an awe pause, say the blessing, sing the Misheberach, and imagine, “Let our hands be filled with your blessings,” (Avinu Malkeinu).

Get sleep and exercise.
Both strengthen immunity. People deprived of sleep who are exposed to a cold virus are more likely to get sick. Rabbi Chanina ben Chachinai, in Pirke Avot, teaches, “Staying awake is like forfeiting one’s life.” Maimonides uses Deut. 4:9, “Guard ourselves”, to encourage exercise, healthy eating, and eight hours of sleep. “When keeping the body in health and vigor, one walks in the way of God,” Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Hilkot Deot 4:1

In stressful times, let us double our sources of strength and nourish body, mind, and spirit. The last verse of Adon Olam is “In your hand I place my spirit from when I sleep to when I wake, and I will not fear.” Imagine the hands of G-d and curl up within.

“Pursue justice,” teaches Isaiah.
A total of 48 times in the Torah, we are admonished to care for the widow and the orphan. Let us think of our most vulnerable, the frail elderly, the immunocompromised, those without food, or who can’t pay the rent, and practice tzedakah, justice. At our free clinic, students are delivering food and medications to people’s homes, to people who have nowhere else to turn. I find myself profoundly grateful to have a roof, a place to shelter, a steady income, enough food to eat.

During Pesach, we drop out one drop of wine for each plague, because our glass cannot be full as long as there are those in need. Let’s bring back the bumper sticker, “Think globally, act locally.”

Practice social distancing.
During plagues, people would be quarantined until the Kohen said they were disease free. This is a time of tzimtzum. As the Zohar teaches, to create the world, God had to withdraw part of themself and in that place the world was created.

Social distancing does not mean virtual distancing. Zoom, Skype, phones, and Facetime facilitate connection with both our families of choice and our families of origin. Connecting with other is also an immune booster. Let us sing together, laugh together, spend time with grandchildren and practice virtual bikkur holim, with the frail, and isolated.

Address emotional and spiritual health.
Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav taught that the world is a narrow bridge, and not to fear at all. We must not let fear rule. Fear usually has a decent goal, like stay safe, don’t get sick, do a good job, but fear’s strategies of suffocation, paralysis, and panic often create the opposite.

Nachman taught hitbodedut. Once a day, pour out your heart, and then the rest of the day, live life fully. However you see G-d, as nature, the universe, social justice, Shekinah, this is a time to stay connected.

Just when we need our deepest strength and perspective, to be in touch with our inner wisdom, fear presents itself and can sever the connection. We get into survival mode. To regain our connection in the face of challenge, let us do those things, to the extent that we can, that nourish our spirit, whether it is dancing in the living room, singing Broadway songs, reading, painting, chatting online with our children, or studying Torah.

Do unfinished business.

In his 70’s, my father had a heart attack. He called my mother and myself into the CCU and said the last 25 years with us had been the best years of his life, and if he should die, he didn’t want us to mourn. Then he lived another 20 years. By doing his unfinished business, he opened the door to the future, and I got to know my father. Brushes with mortality can be a moment to decide to say the things that we have left unsaid.

Zachor: remember

When I was a child, there was a polio epidemic in Montreal. Families left the city and went to ‘the country.’ By the end, 74 percent of people with polio never became ill, 24 percent had a mild-moderate illness, 2 percent were stiff for 10 days, and 1 percent were paralyzed. The epidemic ended, we went home, then there was a vaccine, and now almost no one gets polio. But I had friends who did.

Will we learn the lessons of this experience, of this illness of the world, long after it is gone? Will we remember to reach out to those in need and at the same time, to take care of ourselves? Will we remember that the meaning of life is life itself, and that our health and the health of those we care about, especially our children, is the most precious gift of all?

Let us go together, this year, from slavery to freedom, and experience the simple joy of being alive. In these times of uncertainty and not knowing, let us be members of a new group, the Mutual Inspiration Society.

 

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