First, a series of disclaimers:
I am not an ordained rabbi. I am not an expert in COVID-19. I am not an expert in anything, really. I feel slightly more knowledgeable, mostly because I’m a geek and I recently turned forty-two. Also because I am a fourth year rabbinical student currently completing my first unit of clinical pastoral education. But again, I have no authority. I am merely a fellow traveler through these uncertain times. An extra in a disaster movie. You know, the Jewish Chinese family in the background while the major players are center stage.
Okay, so as long we are clear that I freak out as much as the next person; That my favorite family member is my trusted babysitter, Sir Streaming Videos; And that I cannot count the number of times I’ve lost it with my kids, my husband, and my professors. (I highly recommend refraining from the latter if at all possible.)
Facing life at home through May (at least)
With a deep breath, I am breathing into the announcement that schools will remain closed for the rest of the school year. Well, actually (I guess thankfully), our district will continue to provide distance learning. And my seminary did not stop for a moment — since it already offered the option to Zoom into classes, every single one of them continued without missing a single day. So now, I’m taking five graduate school courses while also primary parenting a four and a six year-old. Riding the wave…
Living life with eyes wide open
Here is what I know for sure: there is no Zoom meeting, no free exercise class, or drawing class, or story time, or meditation gathering, or daily minyan that will make this better. We will not learn our way out of this or improve ourselves out of this or eat our way out of this. This is the most incredible, stressful, unbelievable, scary thing most of us have ever lived through. This is having a deeper impact on the human race than anything else that has happened in my forty-two years of living. No one knows exactly when “normal” will return. No one knows how big the economic toll will be. No one knows whether the United States government will step up to its responsibility to its citizens and nationalize the effort to produce and distribute personal protective equipment, acknowledge the Herculean efforts of American companies to manufacture ventilators, support its citizens financially as employment plummets, or any of a sundry other things that are probably on your mind before my theological thoughts.
If your belief in God was wavering or non-existent before the pandemic, you are probably taking great joy in the nonsensical, life-threatening choices of some fundamentalists. And if you believe God has a plan for everything, your belief may be wavering or you may believe your belief makes you immune to science. And if you were anti-vaccinations before the pandemic, I sure hope you’re rethinking your political ideology now.
This moment is not what I have been studying for. I did not choose to attend rabbinical school as a mid-career transition because I foresaw a global pandemic and thought people would need spiritual support to ride through it and deal with survivor’s guilt beyond it.
Confronting the brokenness
On the other hand, the brokenness and frailty of life that people are confronting? That is the core of my philosophical inquiry. Before the pandemic, many people warned me that I was boxing myself into a negative space by using this URL, broken rabbi. That somehow, I should always place myself as a spiritual exemplar and that my prospects for employment are vastly decreased by insisting on this branding.
I get that I make people uncomfortable by being completely honest. I did that long before I started rabbinical school. The truth that shook my world was taught to me by Rabbi Mordechai Finley in an adult education Intro to Kabbalah course. He started with a series of weeks learning the history of Western philosophy, with long pauses for Gnosticism and Neo-Platonic ideals. The following paragraphs should not be taken as a direct transcription of Rabbi Finley’s teaching. Rather, they represent how I have internalized his teaching and moved forward on my own path.
Lurianic Kabbalah: guiding my path, determining my branding
Neo-Platonic ideals: the understanding that certain ideas are more real that material reality. Love, justice, truth, and beauty actually exist and stand on firmer ground than my four year-old.
God is beyond material reality. Fundamentally, God is beyond comprehension. We can attempt to know the Shadow of the Divine; but to believe we know the essence of God is to believe in idol worship.
And then comes the Lurianic creation myth. In the beginning, there was only God. And God had to make space for non-God. A void. In that void, vessels containing the essence of the Divine were placed, to allow the void to grow. But the non-God space could not fully hold God, and the vessels broke. And so began existence: with the brokenness of the Divine.
Each living thing contains a core brokenness, a core wound. By searching for our individual brokenness and focusing our attention on repairing the world within ourselves, we do our part to repair God. This is the original and foundational meaning of tikkun olam: repairing the world within.
The repair never ceases. No one is perfect. Hopefully, our lives end with less brokenness than we started. And our souls can choose to return to this world to continue the work of repair. That’s gilgul, turning, the Jewish understanding of reincarnation.
Neither God nor your Chinese neighbors caused the pandemic.
Which leads us back to this moment. God did not cause the pandemic. Your Chinese neighbors, my Chinese family, did not cause the pandemic. It is easier to fight an enemy who is tangible and human. At this moment, let us try to fight the enemies within ourselves rather than beyond ourselves.
God is with us as we howl our lamentations. She is with us as we fight to save those suffering from Coronavirus and every other physical, mental, and spiritual ailment. The Place, Makom, holds space for us during this time of incredible uncertainty. Makom is with us while we are awake and while we try to dream. And we are with each other.
Shechinah, the Indwelling Presence of the Divine, is the Eternal Mother whom we all need to suckle from.
Allowing ourselves deep spiritual nourishment in times of crisis might be the deepest gift of Judaism. For we Jews have never been a superpower. We have survived being massacred countless times for being Jewish. And now, we are called to bear witness to the felling of our fellow humans for no reason at all.
May we all have the courage to live through another day. May we each find our own path to riding the waves of uncertainty with compassion and love. Selah.