Have you noticed how people all over the world are staging recreations of famous paintings and sharing them online? They are delightful, sometimes hilarious and, in these times of pandemic, they provide a smidgen of relief from the claustrophobia and anxiety most of us feel. My nine-year-old son’s art teacher assigned her students to make one of these recreations. After looking through a selection of great art, he chose “The Scream,” Edvard Munch’s nightmare image of a skeletal figure, crossing a bridge – perhaps the bridge from life to death – letting out a wail of horror. I fretted that this might be a trifle morbid for a nine-year-old, but we went outside and, as the sun set in an explosion of orange and purple, he put his hands on the sides of his face and screamed.
It turned out that “The Scream” was just what we needed. For our family, the picture captured what it is like to live through COVID-19. And it occurred to me that these recreations are a metaphor for the way we are living now. Confined to our homes, we try to create a life that is familiar to us, but in many ways, is almost a parody of our normal routines. We are in our familiar homes, but our homes have become our offices and classrooms and shelters against the virus. We wave to neighbors across the street and shout encouragement to one another. We tune in to Zoom versions of fitness classes, famous entertainers performing in their living rooms, and Passover seders with far-flung friends and neighbors.
But underlying it all is an increasing sense of anxiety.
That anxiety is growing every day. I know, because every day I talk to more people who are scared about their health or finances or both. I talk to people who are worried about a parent or a friend, or are worried about contracting the virus. And, sadly, I talk to people who are mourning the loss of a loved one who has succumbed to COVID-19.
Almost everyone is wondering the same thing: When is the world going to go back to normal? And will it be like the old normal, before coronavirus, or some new kind of normal? How will we be changed by this experience?
There is simply no way to know. But for many, there is great solace in Jewish spiritual practice. After all, though these times seem exceptional to us, Judaism has sustained our ancestors through plagues and pestilences time and again throughout the centuries. And our ancestors didn’t even have Zoom.
Thank goodness for Zoom! Like other local congregations, Temple B’nai Abraham has gone virtual. We hold virtual Shabbat gatherings, classes, healing services, shiva minyans, Jewish meditation, and religious school – all online. Everything is like before in some ways, but not the same at all as we navigate the needs of the moment.
Whether it’s a service or a class or a meeting, I ask people to bring themselves into the moment through their neshama. In Hebrew, neshama means both breath and soul, and the word appears over and over again in our daily liturgy. The first thing we are encouraged to say in the morning is modah/modeh ani – I give thanks to You living, eternal Sovereign for my neshama, my soul that you have breathed into me. Thank you for this new day, for my life. As long as I am alive, I give thanks for nishmat kol chai, the breath/soul of all life.
By focusing on our neshama, we are reminded that God is not separate from us, but within us, around us. Divine love and compassion are available in every place, at any moment. Even in times of uncertainty, fear, illness, and loss. There are many ways to focus on the neshama. Increasingly, Jews are doing so through mindfulness and meditation – practices which have been proven scientifically to help people with anxiety, depression, anger, and fear. We don’t have to sit in formal meditation (though that can also be helpful). We can simply take a moment to breathe, to connect with ourselves, with our souls, with God.
Of course, I’m not suggesting these practices can solve our problems, but they can certainly help us cope. When we open our hearts to Divine compassion and love that is always available to us, we can become more grounded – and we can be more compassionate and loving.
Judaism offers another resource that can be invaluable in troubled times: Shabbat, a day dedicated to the gifts of life and the Source of All Life. In Genesis, at the end of the creation story God shavat vayinafash (the same root as nefesh) – God rested and was “re-souled.” Shabbat, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught, is a sanctuary in time. It’s a day to stay away from the news, and to connect to people we care about, to connect to the beauty of creation, and to be re-souled.
And so, on Friday evenings, many of us get together on Zoom and light Shabbat candles together (well, virtually together), and breathe in the light. We think of the people to whom we want to send a blessing of shalom, the people who are with us, and the people who are far away. It’s by no means a normal Shabbat – but it still produces a warm sense of love and contentment that so many of us associate with the day.
It may seem obvious that in times of social isolation we need our communities more than ever, but I’ve found many people need reminding. I encourage everyone to join virtual Shabbat services, classes, discussion groups. Even though we are physically isolated, we need not be alone.
Rabbi Alison Adler is the spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly.