The new coronavirus that began as a localized outbreak in central China has quickly become a global pandemic. It has brought the world to a standstill and redefined “normal” life.
Rabbi Yisroel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidism, taught that every occurrence in the universe, even a negative occurrence, can and should provide us with productive lessons.
As we continue to follow health guidelines and pray for the recovery of those infected, here are some encouraging things we’ve learned from this global pandemic:
1. Our shared humanity: The virus is blind to cultural and ideological differences. It has infected and affected people of all races, religions, and ages. In many ways, the world has become more united, sharing the same vulnerability. Our sages (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 1:2) say that this actually happens once a year on Rosh Hashanah, when “all the people of the world” pass before God in judgment. It reminds us that despite our differences, we are one humanity under God.
2. The power of caring: While the nature of this new disease is still being examined by scientists, it is thought to spread mainly by person-to-person contact. We must not forget that love also spreads person-to-person (even at six feet apart). King Solomon spoke of the significance each of us can have to one another. “As in water, face answers to face, so is the heart of a man to a man.” (Proverbs 27:19).
3. Finding comfort in prayer: Efforts to halt the spread of the disease have cast us into uncharted waters. Newly imposed restrictions, economic devastation, and the fear of being infected have left us anxious and uncertain. But, as Swiss philosopher Henri Frederic Amiel put it, “Uncertainty is the refuge of hope.” In prayer, we have the ability to connect to the Supreme Being in Whom we find comfort and solace, and strengthen our hope and resolve. Prayer reaffirms that the Creator is present, all-seeing and cares for each of us.
4. Valuing freedom: Being restricted and isolated presents its set of challenges, but it also reminds us of the gift of freedom. In fact, on the festival of Passover we are instructed that, “In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5). Freedom as a state of mind is to be pursued regularly and in every circumstance we are in.
5. Not being wasteful: As fear has taken its toll, many people have flocked to stores and emptied shelves into their shopping carts. That fear is also a wonderful reminder to appreciate the food we have and constrain waste so that we — and those who live in the world around us — have resources for another day. Jewish law teaches the biblical instruction, “You shall not destroy” (Deuteronomy 20:19). This proscription applies to food as well. If there’s something left over, we try to repurpose it.
6. Prioritizing essentials: Amazon announced that it will prioritize delivering “essential” household items because of high demand. Regardless of how you define essential, the outbreak has led us to reevaluate our priorities. Way before bestselling author Stephen Covey made the idea famous, Moses told livestock owners (Rashi on Numbers 32:16:1), “Make the main thing the main thing and what is secondary — secondary.”
7. Focusing inward: With many of us stuck at home (alone or with loved ones), we have temporarily lost the identities we assume in the outside world. We don’t have the commute or the office to define the pattern of our day. The pandemic has given us space and time to connect with who we are. On the Jewish day of rest, Shabbat, we unplug and focus on ourselves and those we care about. During this pandemic, we do more of that during the week as well.
8. The sanctity of life: The doors to our synagogues have been kept open against forces of anti-Semitism and through many challenges. Now, those doors are closed to save lives. The Torah instructs, “You shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, which a person shall do and live by them” (Leviticus 18:5). Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya interprets this mandate as follows: “In all circumstances, one must take care not to die as a result of fulfilling the mitzvot.” (Talmud Yoma 85b). The sanctity of life is paramount.
9. And the preciousness of every moment: The heartbreaking growing death toll of the virus reminds us of our mortality. As King David said (Psalms 144:4), “Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” Just as the shadow quickly fades, so do our lives. We are reminded to cherish our moments and to experience and infuse them with meaning and purpose.
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