I wake up every morning wrestling with the same questions: How can I be an effective rabbi in a time of separation, isolation, self-sequestering? How many emails, texts, phone calls and zoom classes can I fit into my day and still have energy left for self-care and for staying connected with my family and friends? What about my own self-care?
It isn’t as if I didn’t ask myself these questions before the pandemic, but there is definitely an increased sense of urgency now, as the promised—and dreaded—“spike” looms larger and closer every day. Like everyone else, I am doing my best spin. In order to better grasp what’s happening, I’ve translated the necessity for physical “social distancing” in order to stay healthy and save lives into “holy distancing”—the spiritual imperative to stay healthy and save lives.
And exactly like everyone else, I’m striving to transcend isolation and, weeks into staying at home, a moderate case of cabin fever. I’m taking pity on my old dog, no longer dragging her along every time I make a lap around the block. I’m trying to stick to a semblance of a schedule. I’m trying not to think too far ahead. I’m reminding myself that the only control that I have is self-control. It’s true that we’re all in this together, even when we are isolated in our own homes.
The Jewish ethical practice of Mussar identifies one of the elements of our human “spiritual curriculum” as prishut (“separation”). Prishut, like most spiritual practices, calls for our discernment. It asks us to consider how we spend our time, to separate what we actually need to do from what we do not actually need to do.
I’ve been thinking that perhaps prishut—separation—is the most urgent spiritual practice of this time. While it’s hard on us to be separated, we also have to separate as a matter of life and death. Every time we survey our depleting stock of food—and, of course, toilet paper—we must ask ourselves how urgently we need to leave our homes. We need to consider how we can best stay separate from others when we do so. We have to ask ourselves not what brand of yoghurt or coffee we’d like but what are we actually willing to risk our lives for—and the lives of others? We have to confront the question of our truest, deepest needs and ask ourselves how can we meet our deepest needs when we are separated from so many and so much. We are on a sharp learning curve to accept the reality of virtual connections and a whole lot of alone time and still find a sense of meaning and purpose.
I think that what is most helpful for me these days is taking a good look at what has brought me a sense of joy all along.
I’ve come to admit to myself an uncomfortable truth: that— way too often and far more than I like to admit—these are exactly the same things that I told myself I didn’t have time for in the days when I spent a truly shocking amount of time just getting from one place to another.
Now that my life is commute-free, I cannot deny the upside of that separation. When I make time for more walking and online yoga and for practicing the piano and ukulele, I feel better.
I’ve always found a lot of joy—and sanity—in cultivating our garden and in keeping our own small flock of chickens. When I watch the unfolding of flowers and fruit, really notice bees and hummingbirds and singing birds, I tear up at the beauty of our world. As I do my daily inspection of the unfolding of tender pea and bean seedlings, I think of the Talmudic teaching that every blade of grass has its own angel who bends over it, whispering encouragement: “Grow, grow.”
In the midst of this pandemic, separating what I “need to do” from what I “should do” and what I “want to do” is a process of reminding myself that this has always been our human condition: seeking balance between the most horrific and the most beautiful. In times of plague and war and persecution and upheaval, human beings have always searched for— and found —meaning and purpose —and even joy. And in this time of separation, there’s something immensely comforting to me in tuning into the whispering voices of our ancestors, voices that remind me that this time, too, shall pass.