QUESTION: We are hopeful that things are improving regarding the COVID-19 virus now that there is a loosening of sheltering in place. We have been quarantined for close to three months and now that I am coming out, I am coming out with some trepidation. Did I gain anything from this social exile? What did I learn? What should I have learned? I am worried that I will go back to old habits. How can I feel more positive about this renewed freedom?—B.C. Lawrence, NY
ANSWER: The pandemic has caused us to be left to ourselves. It seems Hashem does not want the tzibur, but He wants us as individuals. Are we isolated and alone or are we intimate with Hashem? This virus has gotten our attention, removing us from the distractions of multitasking, of normal life and routine, of everything society throws at us. Instead we had the opportunity to slow down, reduce distractions, eliminate the noise, and focus. A person has to ask himself the question: am I waiting passively for the crisis to pass or am I actively working on my relationship with God and with myself? Funny, it sounds a little like waiting for Moshiach: “It’ll happen when it happens, or we can try to make it happen!” In this world, all we’re given is time and space. The pandemic told us to limit our space and figure out if we could make use of our time. The virus became the great equalizer—no one was immune—teaching us in a new way that we are all equal in God’s eyes. We are all in it together; maybe in different boats, but in the same ocean. Come to think of it, maybe at times man is an island.
You are clearly taking this challenge seriously, with a focus on ruchnius, spirituality, beyond the concern for health risks, gashmius, and this is a good indicator of the possibility of personal growth for you. Always, always should we strive to be a mevakesh, a seeker of spiritual connection. When we look at the time spent in lockdown, away from family, friends, and neighbors, a few thoughts come to mind. We know that the mitzvos are divided into two types: bein adam laMakom and bein adam lechavero, between man and God and between man and his fellow man. Rav Wolbe points out, however, that there is an important underpinning for these, namely, bein adam l’atzmo, between man and himself. A person has to take stock of who he is, what are his strengths and weaknesses, what he wants to accomplish, what his goals in life are, and what might work best for him to achieve these goals. Lockdown has provided a lot of opportunity to evaluate and assess. But be kind to yourself. Judging yourself under stressful and taxing conditions can’t help but leave you overly self-critical. The beauty of it is that even when a person feels he has come up short, when he has let himself down, he can daven, ask for help from Hashem and begin again. This is the essence of teshuva and it applies no less to perceived missed opportunities. The Baal HaTanya emphasizes the importance of hisbodedus, roughly translated as communing with Hashem. As Dr. Benjamin Epstein has aptly written in his recent book on Jewish mindfulness, “infuse the present with the Presence.” Quarantine provided the opportunity to seek this goal, with time and solitude readily available. If the time was not utilized, it may be a missed opportunity but it may also set the stage for greater awareness to pursue it—a greater readiness. Like all forms of meditation it takes practice and patience, but is within the reach of every person who desires. The story is told of two chasidim are arguing whose Rebbe is greater. The first chasid says, “Mine is greater.” How so? “My Rebbe can think about 10 things all at one time.” The other chasid replies, “No, my Rebbe is greater; he can think about one thing at a time.” Clearly no small achievement, but attainable. When we’re alone, isolated, left to ourselves, it is an opportunity to expand ourselves. Essentially we are embracing what we don’t have—the normal hubbub of everyday life—with what we do have, the quietude and solitude of the self. The baalei mussar write, “Ein menucha k’menuchas hanefesh, there is no peace like peace of mind.”
Addressing your question more specifically, what is a person to do when he squanders opportunities (or thinks he may have)? On one hand we can say what a person chooses to do with his time defines him; on the other hand, what he wants and strives for is also important for him. Sometimes the desire is present but you lack the will and the means. You weren’t ready. But that does not mean that you can’t continue to work to be better prepared to be ready, one step at a time. Begin by focusing on what you have, not on what you don’t have. Rabbi Yisroel Reisman, rosh yeshiva at Torah Vodaath, quotes Reb Moshe. An important lesson in life is that when a person feels the challenge of aliyah, a desire to improve, to do better, he has to apply it concretely to his behavior. Don’t leave it as a thought, or a hope, or a wish, or a prayer. It will only last if it is attached to something else. R’ Reisman writes on Parshas Shelach, “This is why we find that Yehoshua and Kaleiv were given jobs after their aliya in the incident of the meraglim. Yehoshua was given the job of dividing up Eretz Yisrael, and Kaleiv was given the job of being a nasi. Once you do something of significance that inspires you, it has to move to a new area.” He goes on to cite a personal example. After his first son was married, R’ Reisman noticed his father putting on Rabbeinu Tam tefillin the next morning, which he had never seen him do before. When he asked his father why, he replied: Because he had the zechus to see his grandson marry, he felt the love of Hashem and wanted to concretize that feeling into reality.
All is not lost, even if the opportunity of the lockdown period is over. Your questions, strivings, can be actualized if not then, then now. Accomplishments can lead to more, but perhaps more often, that something missing can denote a readiness and real opportunity to meet the challenge of re-emerging. No one can guarantee the outcome, but the effort—that can be guaranteed.
David Berkovitz, Ph.D., of Berkovitz and Associates Clinical Practice, has experience in individual, marital/couples, child, adolescent and family psychotherapy; geriatric consultation; assessment and counseling; and full-battery psychological testing. His office is located in Nutley and he can be reached at 1.888.299.9432 or [email protected] NJ License #03119.