As a people, we Jews often like to do things differently.
One result of the pandemic is something called “pandemic guilt.” (Google it; you’ll get lots of hits.) It’s the feeling of unworthiness that some people are experiencing for being blessed with good health while others suffer during the pandemic.
But we Jews get to add our own twist. We don’t just feel guilty for what’s happening in the here and now. We add the scope of history to our guilt. Our guilt sounds something like this: Our grandparents suffered so much. They survived the Holocaust. Or they survived coming to America in steerage, with just one potato to share between them. Or they survived poverty on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—again, with just one potato. Now that was real suffering.
Yes, yes, of course, of course, I have so much to be grateful for. My health and my family’s. Financial security. I am blessed, I am lucky. Thank you, Hashem. Yet I still feel rotten sometimes.
So my inner voice wonders: Why do I feel so terrible? What’s wrong with me? Compared to my saintly grandparents, I have so many potatoes! I’m blessed with health, my children are healthy; I have a job.
I am a wimp.
I have Jewish pandemic guilt.
Just because our grandparents were saintly and survived great suffering doesn’t mean everything in my life is hunky-dory. I’m not even talking about the deeply serious issues like the loss of loved ones, mental health issues, financial crisis . . . everyone acknowledges these challenges. I’m talking about a subtle, more invisible type of suffering that each of us has endured even while we also enjoy many blessings. This pandemic has taken something valuable from us: the threads that bind us one to another.
I miss having my parents-in-law visit from Georgia, I miss having my own parents inside my house, I miss Shabbat company, I miss my in-person learning group, I miss meeting new people and forming new friendships. I miss all of those connections. And those connections are not minor. Indeed, they are what make our people into a people and not just a large set of ethnically similar families.
It reminds me of this legendary story: A Chassidic rebbe hears about a town that is famous for its extraordinary chesed, and he decides he must see it for himself. He travels to the town and is welcomed warmly into the shul. As the rebbe sits in shul, he becomes deeply upset. There is so much talking during davening! A constant hum and buzz fill the place. When he is asked to give a sermon, he blasts the crowd: What are you doing? Davening is the time to talk to Hashem! And you are chit-chatting with one another?
The town is deeply moved by the rebbe’s speech, and they commit to work on this terrible problem. They institute rules. There is lots of shushing. They make sure to be socially distant in shul. And when the rebbe comes back to visit a year later, the davening is pin-drop quiet. It worked.
But . . . the town is no longer famous for its chesed. Because if you opened your ears at that first visit and listened carefully to the buzz, this is what you might have heard:
“Did you hear? Chana Rochel had twins! Oh, let’s set up meals for her.”
“My goodness, Mr. Cohen is in the hospital. Let’s visit him.”
“Someone needs to make sure Mrs. Schwartz gets to the doctor—can you take her?”
Within the hum was the social fabric of the community. The connections. Inside the buzz was the chesed.
We all miss talking in shul. Actually, lest this be the first piece in Jewish Action that advocates talking in shul, let me clarify: I mean during the kiddush after shul and not during davening. Talking outside shul, shall we say.
We feel like we are suffering not because we are wimps but because we are indeed suffering. The threads that bind our community have frayed, and the hum and buzz have been muted. The opportunities for chesed have been muted! No wonder we are distressed. We are mourning the loss of all this.
Yet the threads are not torn asunder and the hum is still there.
It was there when people put stuffed animals in their windows so kids could “spy” something when going for a walk.
It was there in all the drive-by birthday parties and semachot.
It is there in the backyards with huge tents set up for davening.
And it’s there when we walk down the street and wave to one another on a Shabbat afternoon.
Like flowers in winter, the hum and buzz of our community connections still live, though they have gone underground. But the frozen ground of December always yields to spring, and the crocuses emerge to remind us that new days are ahead.
We did it. We socially distanced. We cut the threads that bound us to one another and severed our ties. And those cuts opened real wounds.
As the ground warms (and the vaccines are distributed), let us take up our knitting and work to stitch the chesed and connections back into our community, mending the rips. May the hum and buzz be restored to vivid life as we remove our masks and once again greet each and every person we meet with a sever panim yafot.
I can’t wait to start talking with you in—I mean, outside—shul again.
Ann D. Koffsky is the author/ illustrator of more than thirty books for children, including Kayla and Kugel’s Almost Perfect Passover(New Jersey, 2016).