Several times this week I have been asked to speak about the current situation and offer some insight or perspective as a Rabbi and educator. I hope that the following thoughts are of value.
1. Anxiety is normal.
Human brains are designed to fear the unknown. it kept our ancestors safe when they encountered new animals in the African Savannah. Curiosity said 'approach, touch, interact'. Fear said 'danger, stay away.' Fear of the unknown keeps us safe. There is little more unknown than a situation like the present that is so different to anything any of us have ever experienced, that it is totally normal to provoke within us anxiety on all sorts of levels. Health of ourselves and loved ones, economic insecurity, how do we adapt to not leaving our homes etc. At the same time it is worth remembering that this is genuinely a temporary situation. It will be gone, almost for sure by autumn and possibly much earlier. Of course there is a real danger to life especially (though not only) to the elderly and vulnerable. But it is not like world war 2. It is not the blitz. It seems likely that the human mortality rate in 2020 will not be significantly different to 2019. That is not to belittle the potential pain and suffering of those who do lose loved ones. But it is a reminder for us and our children that, bizarre though this is, the fear and anxiety it may generate are not reflections of the level of threat.
2. Calm is infectious.
So is goodness, love, caring and positivity (so are negative emotions). Feelings and attitudes, as well as beliefs and ideas, spread from person to person virally hosting themselves in the brains of others, and from there travelling on to other people. When we are calm, others around us will become calmer. when we are positive, they will sooner or later be too. When we focus on how we can give to others in this situation, then that too will be picked up by others. In short we are not masters of the situation but we really genuinely can impact not only our own response but that of those around us, and, through them, the response of countless others in our families, communities, and far further afield
3. When facing a common threat, we remember what we have in common.
We are all vulnerable because we are all human. we are under threat because we are humans and have human bodies. There is something truly beautiful about that recognition of what we have in common. a virus does not differentiate based on our income race or nationality. In fact in the history of the human race we have probably never faced one problem that simultaneously affected every human being on the globe in a way that we were all aware of like today. Nothing can remind us more of what unites us, and nothing can remind us more of how critical it is to remember that long after the virus has left us.
4. Critical moments often serve to bring out the greatness inherent within each one of us.
We often read of heroes who were able to draw upon deep wellsprings of courage, of self sacrifice, of faith and of giving in the most trying times. We may ask ourselves if we think we could do the same. The answer is that we all can. The reason is that all of us have a deep inner essence that Torah describes as 'the image of God'. It is the 'soul of life' that lives within all of us. It is just muffled by our routines, by our daily stimulation and the socialisation of mediocrity that surrounds us in our hectic material driven lives. In crisis the noise is silenced. in this particular crisis that silence is magnified. the superficiality is gone. and without it comes access to the greatness that lies within. The coming days and weeks may demand a lot from us, but it is within us to be able to rise to the moment and to emerge greater people as a result.
5. Now is a time to shift away from focus on ourselves to focus on all those who need us.
There will be many. It may be the child stuck at home who is really struggling. It may be our spouse who cannot cope. A neighbour who is isolated and needs us to go shopping for them. An elderly or vulnerable person who needs social contact and would appreciate our call, even if they do not yet know us. It may be a charity inundated and overwhelmed, a friend whose wealth and life's work has just evaporated, someone who has lost their job and is mired in debt. It may be the person who has just lost a parent and sits alone with no-one to visit their shiva. It may be the bride and groom who had to cancel their wedding, or the barmitvza who studied for a whole year for their big day. It may be someone who is at risk of abuse who is now at greater risk. may be the health worker who is emotionally and physically exhausted. In short there are going to be many many people all around us who really need us. When we focus on ourselves we can wallow in the mud of self pity. There will e much to have self-pity over. But it will not help us, and it will not help others. When we draw upon our inner goodness, and switch to a focus on others it will not just be they who benefit, but us too.
6. Helping others works most powerfully in concentric circles.
Those closest to us need us the most. And our ability to give others will be directly proportional to the health, happiness and peace of mind of those who are closest to us. That begins with ourselves and our own peace of mind. It is not taking away from people if we take out some time at one or two points in the day to focus on our health, to pray to Hashem, to sit silently and let ourselves feel His love for us, and to let our minds relax and our souls speak louder within. Finding that inner peace, and letting go of trying to run the show, is a healthy moment. We need to ensure that we are in a healthy and good place if we are to be able to give to others.
7. When we are in a good place, it is anyone who is isolated with us who comes next.
These weeks of being locked up together could be extremely stressful. Crossing wired, crossing timetables, crossing expectations can exacerbate friction and tension. At the same time being close together and being 'in it' together, can offer an unprecedented opportunity to really build something beautiful between us. One simple and critical rule is communication. Imagine one home where between 10-12 one member of the house expects to be in a crucial zoom meeting for work. Another adult is planing on going shopping. One child has an online class then. others are fighting and arguing. it is a recipe for chaos, resentment and rage. If they had just sat down the night before and talked through each of their schedules and needs for the next day, all of that could have been easily alleviated. The more we make efforts to share our needs and time challenges for the day ahead, and the more we listen and learn those of those around us, the more we can help everyone to know when they can expect us to be where, and the more we can build respect, understanding and avoid conflict.
8. This is a huge opportunity to build the family.
Anyone who has had a Shabbat family meal knows the benefit of sitting down together with phones off. Well that is now a real possibility for families to do for many of the dinners throughout the week. We can have real strong family time. likewise all those working from home are likely to be on flexi-schedules. that means we can build into our daily plans little breaks to pop out and spend a bit of time with other family members. In short there are huge opportunities for real quality daily time that ordinary life simply does not afford us.
9. It is not just we who can rise up and be givers.
This is something we can hep our family members to do as well. We should not underestimate their ability to be givers. If we share our homes with adults then we can work together on a kindness project, getting in touch with local charities who distribute food to the elderly and others in isolation. Whatever our age, we can reach out to lonely people and start to become their daily friends. Children who are more confident and mature enough can do that too. If we have been put in touch with an elderly person to call daily, we can bring our kids into that conversation too. In general it is not wise or helpful to push them or force them to be givers, but if we offer them real opportunities to make real differences, that will be something that the world needs, and something that will enrich them forever.
10. Let's not be harsh on ourselves.
Anyone reading this or similar posts may start to set unreasonable utopian standards for themselves and their homes. We might see pictures and descriptions of our friends or neighbours who seem to be running a peaceful home of saintly givers, whilst despite our best efforts everyone in our home seems to be screaming at each other and we are struggling. it is at such moments that a self destructive voice often appears in our heads masquerading as an angel to rebuke us for our failings. That voice is no angel. It is a demon in disguise, and should be dismissed and thrown out. We are humans. we are trying. not everyone is in the same situation, not every day will be the same. There will be struggles and difficulties. All that I wrote until now are some ideas to help set our focus. If they can be achieved in small part that would be a huge victory and huge benefit. forgiving ourselves and others for imperfections is key. accepting imperfection in ourselves, our homes and wider society is crucial too.
11. What we achieve together will outlive the virus.
Whilst we are not blessed with prophecy, it is likely that all of this is going to ring out many incredible aspects of ourselves and of the world as a whole, that will long outlive this virus. Amongst the prayers we offer for the ill, and the vulnerable, and for those at financial risk, perhaps it could be valuable to pray as well, that once this virus has gone all of the following will remain:
That we will all have learned that we are far more fragile and vulnerable than we ever imagined. we will know that however great humanity becomes, it is never really fully in control, and that is as great a refocus as any. Accepting God's charge of the world releases us from so many of the stresses that come when we spend our lives trying to be gods instead. That we will have learned that we can live without so many of the luxuries and extravaganzas that we thought were necessities just a few weeks or days ago. When all of this is gone, we will probably go back to the expensive holidays, weddings, and other luxuries currently out of reach. but we and our children will always remember that these are blessings and luxuries. not necessities. they will always place slightly lower on our priority list, and we will always be that more humble as a result. That wee will have learned how to become greater carers for ourselves, for our families, for our neighbours, and for strangers. That we will have learned that we share far more in common with every human in this world than we ever realised, and that, having gone through this together, we will continue to argue and disagree about the best way forward, but that we will argue and disagree as friends and family. And that we will al have grown closer to God, and learned how each one of us carries the incredible Godly soul within. We will all have seen in ourselves and others a resilience, courage, creativity, care and kindness that we never knew we had.
May Hashem bring us the blessings of health, income, and well being, and may He help us to bring out our greatness and that of all those we contact, and all the world.
Rabbi Daniel Rowe is the Executive Director of Aish UK. He holds a BA in Philosophy from University College London and an MPhil in Philosophy from Birkbeck College. He studied for a decade in Israel in various Talmudic institutes and is considered one of the most dynamic Jewish speakers in the UK, teaching in campuses, communities and schools across the country.
Rabbi Rowe is known for his ability to tackle difficult topics and has numerous videos and articles online. In 2016, Rabbi Rowe took part in a live televised debate with a leading atheist, dubbed "The God Debate".
Rabbi Rowe has played an instrumental role in the creation and development of many organisations and initiatives such as the Forum for Jewish Leadership, the Aleinu Conference and Shabbat UK.