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The Rabbis Respond

We asked our rabbis for spiritual guidance to help our Jewish communities cope with the coronavirus crisis. Here’s what they said.

Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz, PhD., Congregation B’nai Shalom, Westborough 

Over these past weeks, the mantra that I’ve been singing in my head has been the closing words of Adon Olam. “In God’s hands, I place my spirit, when I sleep and when I rise. And with my spirit, my body too, God is with me, I shall not fear.” With the passing of the days, different elements of the mantra have spoken to me, and perhaps they will speak to you too:

We cannot get stuck in fear or anxiety, but acknowledging it when it arises can help us recognize when we need to pause, breathe, reach out for connection, take a walk. My reaching for this mantra helps me see and feel my emotions more clearly. Then I can choose how to act rather than react, and regain my equilibrium in the midst of these uncertain times.

I acknowledge what was always true, but is seen so much more acutely now. I am not fully in control. I place my body and spirit within the infinite, interconnectedness of all life. It has always been there. Knowing this, I can focus on those things that I do have some control over, and let go of others. Seeing this more clearly can help dissipate some of the anxiety or frustration that I experience.

I experience God’s hands through the hands of others. I have been so incredibly moved by the team of congregants who have made calls to over 160 of our most vulnerable members every week (our seniors and our single-headed households) and our Board who have been connecting with every one of our members. Listening to them share how conversations have been mutually spirit-lifting is a powerful reminder that God does indeed dwell among us when we reach out to each other as community.

 

Rabbi Michael Swarttz, Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Westborough

Our Age of Anxiety, Fear…and Hope

There is a Hebrew expression, “Gam zeh ya’avor”–“This too shall pass.” There is an Israeli spin on this expression: “We managed to survive Pharaoh, we can survive this too.” How timely during this Pesach/Passover season!

At the Seder we are supposed to feel as if we ourselves left Egypt.  This year, this Passover, we are all in Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, comes from the root “tzar,” which means “narrow.”  Mitzrayim means the narrow, confining places. The Exodus story has often been interpreted psychologically as freeing ourselves from those things which constrict or oppress us.  Our freedom has been severely curtailed, and we are burdened with the anxiety and fear of these uncertain times.

It helps to remember that this crisis is temporary, and if we take the necessary precautions we can get through this. This is a time to overprotect but not overreact.

David Kessler, a grief expert, added a sixth stage to Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief: meaning.

“I wanted meaning in those darkest hours. And I do believe we find light in those times.” 

“I believe,” Kessler asserts, “we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over.”

Believe me, I am searching for meaning and for light in this darkness. And I do find meaning and solace in the Jewish impulse to see hope even in dark times.

And I do find sources of hope in this dark time: in the very distinct possibility that the drastic measures that we are currently taking have the potential to limit the spread of the disease, and in our medical experts’ wisdom and guidance. And I find hope in our Jewish tradition that always seeks light in the face of darkness, and God knows, we have seen truly dark times.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks captures the centrality of hope in Jewish life: “Hope is the gift of Judaism to the world. To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair…Judaism is a sustained struggle against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet.”

 

Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz, Temple Beth El, Springfield

How do we cope with anxiety?

There is an interesting discussion in the Talmud (Sotah 42b) about a verse from Proverbs (דאגה‭ ‬בלב‭ ‬איש‭ ‬ישחנה 12:25). The verse translates “if there is anxiety in a man’s heart, let him…” The debate in the Talmud is about what the last word of the sentence means. One rabbi says that he should put the anxiety out of his mind. Another rabbi says that he should discuss it with others.

The debate about what the Hebrew word Yashchena means continues in modern translations as well. The Jewish Publication Society translates the word as “quash” it.  JPS suggests that if there is anxiety in a person’s mind that person should quash it, set it aside and turn anxiety into joy with a good word. JPS is suggesting that it is up to the individual to quash his/her anxiety.

Robert Alter translates the verse quite differently. He writes “Worry in a man’s heart brings him low but a good word will gladden him.”

In Alter’s translation the person who is anxious should receive a good word from someone else. Alter’s translation suggests that we have a responsibility to sooth the anxiety of those around us.

What I have learned over the years is that we all manage anxiety differently. Some people deal with anxiety by putting it out of their mind for themselves, while others find comfort in talking about it with other people. Some manage their anxiety alone, and others rely on neighbors or friends or family to reframe and find calm.

So first I ask you — how do you deal with anxiety? Do you put it out of your mind? Or do you prefer to talk about it with someone.  This may explain why some of us can’t watch any more news, and can’t read any more newspapers or magazines about coronavirus, and others of us can’t get enough news. Second, I ask you to consider what the people around you might need. Some of my friends need to talk with me to manage their anxiety and others quash their anxiety and want to talk about anything but their anxiety.

There is no one way to cope. But we would be wrong to assume that others cope the way we do.

 

Rabbi Valerie Cohen, Temple Emanuel Sinai, Worcester

Sacred Permission

In the week leading up to Passover, many of my rabbinic colleagues were reposting some reassuring advice from Rabbi Susan Fendrick. She began, in all caps: “YOU ARE ALLOWED TO HAVE A SH’VACH SEDER” (sh’vach meaning weak or pathetic). Her words are symbolic for all of us, and for much more than just the Seder. It may sound heretical, but this sentence is a gift full of compassion, permission to take care of ourselves without pressure. We are going through a collective trauma, and this is emotional and exhausting and overwhelming. We don’t have to be the perfect home-school teacher or perfect work at home employee or perfect cook or partner or technology expert or Seder leader. We’re allowed and encouraged to feel and express our true feelings; to collapse, fall apart, and lay prone on the couch when we need to. And to balance those moments of despair, we have the Jewish resources to find support from God (or whatever label you use to refer to the Divine, the Source of All, Creator, Energy, Higher Power.) We can connect with people, over the phone or through a video conferencing platform. Because God is found in relationships. We can go outside for a walk or absorb the scenery, because God is found in nature. We can stop, breathe with intention, meditate even, for God is found in the breath. By connecting to people, to nature, to ourselves, we may not find the perfect answer, but we will find hope. We often read in creative liturgy, “I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard, the Jew hopes.” (Edmund Fleg).

May the strength of that hope carry us through the unknown challenges that lie ahead in our path.

 

Rabbi Yaakov Blotner, Shaarai Torah West, Worcester

Firstly, I hope that by the time the readership reads these lines that we will blessed with the virus crisis over. Everything is life is Divinely determined, or like they say in Yiddish “bashert.”

What might we learn and reflect upon by the fact that this illness and its many consequences are happening in the days and weeks prior to Passover? Perhaps we are experiencing a sense of exile and confinement as did our ancestors in Egypt. Whether we are quarantined, isolated, stranded or homebound, a measure of freedom has been lessened.
How we yearn to go back to our “normal” routine. How we seek to be unburdened from misery imposed by Covid-19.

I am reminded of the words of King David as explained by the Chasidic teachings, in Psalm 63.
David yearns to get out the wilderness where he fled and be in his home, his holy environment. He wishes that when he gets back that he will have the same yearning while he is deprived.
Let’s have some cautious optimism that this period of deprivation will soon end. Let’s resolve that when we regain access to our synagogues, we will have continued enthusiasm, participation, and appreciation.
Wishing all good health, and a most enjoyable Passover.

 

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson, director of Spiritual Life, JGSLifecare, Longmeadow

A prayer sent out to JGS Lifecare staff. 

“This is some of the spiritual support I try and offer for our devoted, compassionate staff. I have heavily adapted the prayer, originally composed by Rabbi Ayelet Cohen.”

May the One who blessed our ancestors, and all of our dear ones,

Bless all of you who put yourselves at risk each day to care for the sick,

And who ensure that the delivery of quality and appropriate care can happen speedily and compassionately:

You: Our CNAs and Care Managers, Physicians and PAs and Nurses, Social Workers and Dietary Staff, Housekeeping and Environmental Staff, Rehab and Concierge Staff;

You: Our Administrative, HR, Business and Concierge Staff, EVPs, EDs, CEOs and Administrators, Development, Admissions and Marketing Staff;

All of You: Who continue to navigate the unfolding dangers of the world each day, to tend to those you have sworn to care for.

May God, Source of All Life,

Bless you and your families and all those dear to you.

Ease your fears. Sustain you. Protect you, and continue to restore your spirits.

May you continue in good health that you may continue to bring healing.

Bless the sacred work of your hands and every sweet intention of your hearts.

So that together, we will support and strengthen each other,

And together, we will face the fears and uncertainties of these scary times.

 

Rabbi Andrea Cohen-Kiener, Temple Israel, Greenfield

From the Mishna Pirkei Avot Chapter 4, Mishna 23, we learn: Rabbi Shimon ben (son of) Elazar said, do not appease your fellow at the time of his anger, do not console him at the time his dead lies before him, do not ask him [to regret his oath] at the time of his oath, and do not attempt to see him at the time of his downfall.

I am very loathe to give advice in a time where much of the grief we must confront is still in front of us. Many of the losses we may experience are still unfolding. Advice which is from a position of “I know what will help you. Here’s what you should do” is likely to fall on deaf, or perhaps numb ears. Rather, words that come from the heart, go into the heart.
I will try to speak from the heart.

We are experiencing multiple emotional and spiritual challenges. Some of us are confronting medical challenges as well. We have all lost our routine schedule and some (perhaps false) sense of mastery over our lives. We may have income loss and financial burdens.  We have grief and anticipatory grief. We have fear and anticipatory fear.  We have rage. Many of us are struggling with isolation and other burdens that were with us from BC, before coronavirus.

All this is real. The tool that I use to stay aware and open-hearted is quiet. I sit quietly and watch the racing thoughts. I do not push them away. Each of them is a messenger from my true concerns and true feelings. All those that I mentioned above: grief, isolation, rage and fear. I try to quietly watch and acknowledge these messengers. With this effort, for me, a sense arises of a greater spaciousness. When I fear death – which we will all face in time – in that spaciousness, I remember that I am a body AND a soul. There is a part of me out of reach of death. When I face grief, in that spaciousness, I remember that I am part of a whole body of humanity that is in this with me. My body of grief is a drop in the ocean of all the griefs, past and present. I feel MY portion of the grief in the great sea and I remember the great sea. When I feel isolated, in the spaciousness, I remember that I am together in this moment with everyone else in a uniquely poignant way. In a way, we have never been more together. When I feel rage, in the spaciousness, I feel the sorrow and the great tragedy of all human foibles that increase human suffering. In accepting this, I can open the door to compassion: “Oh the humanity.”

A blessed teacher from the Hassidic community, Rabbi Kalanymous Kalman Shapira, lived and wrote and perished during World War II. During his time in the Warsaw Ghetto, he wrote about the spiritual expansiveness of joy which he saw as a precursor to prophecy or any form of inspiration and closeness to the divine. But how, in the ghetto, could anyone muster that?  He taught that there is a secret gate: the gate of grief. Our grief for our losses, collectively, is experienced, as it were, by the Creator. When we do not abandon our true feelings, we are not abandoned. We are in fact connected with the essence of one who made us. 

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