An Encounter With One’s Self

As I write this message in late April, the horrid illness, tragic deaths and economic devastation imposed by Covid-19 have indiscriminately caused social disorder, psychological fragility and relationship disruption. The implications have varied among communities and individuals, but for many people, one of the more significant consequences of extended confinement has been an encounter with one’s self.

For those living alone, spending significant solitary time is not an unfamiliar experience. But even for such individuals, as well as for those living with others, coronavirus has introduced a new strain of isolation. The novelty of this solitude reflects the almost absolute elimination of direct human contact outside the home, compounded by the diminishing of many fundamental dimensions of personal identity.

The shedding of layers of identity that ordinarily veil our deepest inner self, and the elimination of the noise of life that commonly justifies our lack of introspection, have thrust us into a jarring rendezvous we have long avoided. An encounter with our unvarnished self can be exhilarating, confusing, emancipating or tempestuous. Some may embrace the opportunity, while others deliberately look away.

An Amalgamation of Identities

Each of us is an amalgamation of multiple facets of identity. Our preoccupation with a particular identity dictates its prominence at any given moment. For example, my identity as a grandfather is intensified when I am playing with my grandchildren, my identity as an author is more prominent while I am writing, and my identity as a chocolate aficionado is accentuated when . . . well, actually much of the time. By severely restricting our activities and interactions, the Covid-19 sequestration has suppressed many aspects of our identities.

For example, a significant dimension of one’s identity is one’s daily occupation, whether that is practicing a profession or studying in kollel or a university, owning a business or working on an assembly line. Losing one’s business or suffering a layoff cuts deeply into one’s identity, and only somewhat less so when the business or job is put on hold and lingers precariously. Even when forced to work remotely, thereby being denied the ordinary workplace collegiality and banter, one’s occupational identity suffers.

Other significant elements of identity are also diminished by the expansive societal lockdown. We sustain our self-image as members of a social circle by playing basketball together, shopping as a group or simply chatting over a cup of coffee. But what if getting together is prohibited, malls are closed and basketball courts shut? For many, following and watching a favorite sports team, even if alone, becomes part of their identity, which explains the emotional outbursts of fans to a team’s loss or win. Alas, wins and losses have been put on hold.

And, of course, personal appearance is significant to one’s sense of self. Much of that is lost when even the limited available social interaction is telephonic or through a hazy Zoom headshot. Being compelled to don protective masks on the occasional excursion to the grocery store or doctor’s appointment further diminishes one’s sense of identity.

In the midst of all the pain and damage wrought by Covid-19, we are being afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine ourselves as we emerge from seclusion.

Observant Jews suffer additional, unique identity losses during this quarantine. Daily minyan attendance and certainly the Shabbos morning shul kiddush are often part and parcel of how we see ourselves. And joining others in packing and delivering Tomchei Shabbos packages or participating in bikur cholim visits are frequently at the core of who we are, often more so than our jobs or hobbies. This is certainly the case for participants of a long-standing weekly parashah class, daily early morning kollel or Daf Yomi study group.

Perhaps Covid-19’s most devastating blow to the Orthodox Jew’s identity has been the diminution in general integration within the Jewish community. Shul attendance, chesed projects and Torah study sessions are not only aspects of individual self-definition, they also meld the individual Jew into the collective communal persona. This integration, core to our identity, is further intensified by celebrating in each other’s simchos and sharing in each other’s grief in a community-based social circle far broader than family and close friends. Large weddings and other celebrations may be justifiably disparaged as opulent and wasteful; however, such celebrations, if done modestly, serve an important role in our communal integration. This fusing of the individual and the community is the very essence of the Jew’s identity.

The Identity of a Jew

Jews, particularly observant Jews, frame their core identity as both individuals and as community members. We are socialized to do so not only in summer camp and youth groups, but most significantly and effectively in day-in and day-out Orthodox schooling from early childhood through high school and beyond. Our shul relationship is not merely as members of an institution, but as regular attendees, many of us three times daily. We study Torah together, live in Orthodox enclaves and constantly obsess over the safety and security of Israel.

Though much of our mitzvah observance is fulfilled on an individual level, religious rituals, even those that are personal, are most appropriately performed communally. This is true in welcoming the Shabbos, blowing the shofar or celebrating a son’s bris. I first appreciated the extent of the Torah’s intended communal integration almost thirty-six years ago when preparing to speak at my own sheva berachos three days after my wedding.

I stumbled upon a teaching of the Rambam (Hil. Avel 1:10). Communal sheva berachos was first decreed by Moshe Rabbeinu shortly after he descended from forty days and nights alone with God on the summit of Mount Sinai. Rambam teaches that this edict simultaneously addressed the practices of celebrating seven days of sheva brachos and sitting shivah for seven days upon the passing of a family member. I ruminated over the commonality between shivah and sheva berachos and about Moshe Rabbeinu’s motivation for establishing these two practices.

The strange and challenging period of Covid-19 sequestering is an unprecedented opportunity to discover aspects of ourselves in ways that are almost never available.

In that evening’s devar Torah, I surmised that upon descending from Mount Sinai Moshe Rabbeinu was concerned that the Jewish people would understand his forty-day private encounter with God to represent the pinnacle of human spirituality. He feared that Jews would aspire to achieve holiness in solitude rather than recognize that spiritual heights are most precious and accessible when pursued through collective communal experiences.

To convey this message, Moshe Rabbeinu identified two instances when an individual’s natural inclination is to retreat, to detach from the community, to be alone. The first is during periods of intense personal grief. The second is the newly married couple’s eagerness to celebrate alone, with only each other. The mandating of communal participation in shivah and sheva berachos conveys that even when we might instinctively be inclined to seclusion, and even in our most personal experiences, a Jew belongs within the community; our essence is as a member of the Jewish people.

Covid-19 has not only stymied ordinary communal integration but has even denied communal involvement in major life-cycle experiences. Not only are we unable to participate in our friends’ sheva berachos, but we couldn’t even dance and rejoice at their weddings. Not only can we not whisper in their ears words of comfort during shivah, but we couldn’t even share tears of grief at their relative’s funeral. And perhaps most traumatizing is learning of those who left this world in absolute solitude, denied even the gentle touch of their beloved saying goodbye.

Yet Still an Individual

Notwithstanding the integration of our personal identity with that of our community, we remain individuals. We have personal weaknesses to remedy and strengths to exploit. Though our religious experience is elevated through communal integration, we also must pursue a relationship with God that is personal. We appropriately concern ourselves with the community’s collective religiosity, but we are also obligated to focus on and engage in our own personal growth and observance.

The effectiveness of both our communal efforts and our individual pursuits is significantly dependent on our knowing ourselves. Too often, however, even the most disciplined and ambitious among us accumulate vast knowledge and develop a keen understanding of people, but assiduously avoid studying who they are themselves. The strange and challenging period of Covid-19 sequestering is an unprecedented opportunity to discover aspects of ourselves in ways that are almost never available.

An Opportunity to Learn, Not Yet a Time to Know

It is my fervent hope that by the time this magazine appears in your mailbox, we will no longer be sheltering in place and some semblance of normal life will have returned. While isolation provides a rare opportunity for us to encounter our raw selves, actual self-knowledge is achievable only when our daily life returns to normal, or to whatever becomes the new long-term normal. Only then will our true selves emerge.

We need to recognize that our self-observations during confinement do not yield the full picture of who we are, but merely afford normally inaccessible insights upon which we can later construct an understanding of our comprehensive selves. This initial period of learning, available during quarantining, may be comparable to obtaining an X-ray before examining a patient’s body. Analyzing the otherwise inaccessible anatomy is invaluable to the subsequent study of the ordinarily observable, but studying an X-ray is not in itself sufficient to understand the body as a whole.

There are many aspects of our inner self that we can explore during these days of full or partial isolation:

What is our relationship with God? Perhaps that can be gauged by our prayers in seclusion and without distraction. Our words may flow with atypical sincerity and focus, or we may rush through prayer, unrestricted by the congregational pace or the judging eyes of pew mates. Now that the daily carousel of ordinary life has halted, what role does God’s will play in our quiet contemplation of current and future responsibilities and choices?

What kind of children or parents are we? How are we as friends? Do we fret about those with whom we are unable to spend time, or do we welcome the mandated distancing as somewhat of a relief, alleviating us from some of our social obligations? Do we concentrate on addressing only our own woes and challenges, or do we extend an effort to address the needs of others?

What importance do we attribute to our financial status, our social standing, our public persona? Do we view financial losses as practical blows that need to be calibrated and addressed, or do they undermine our sense of self way beyond their practical implications? In considering canceled social events, we may regret losing the pleasure of spending time with others, or we may begin to recognize that we anticipate such events primarily as opportunities to emphasize our status and prominence.

We learn much about ourselves from how we spend time for which we have no accountability. Do we uncover a stifled intellectual curiosity that bursts forth when unleashed from within, or do we discover that the wasteful and unproductive hours that permeated our daily schedule for years were not, as we thought, the result of our exhaustion from the commute and our need to wake up early?

One note of caution: Whatever you discover, be kind and generous to yourself. Remember that much of the less-attractive discoveries you make are likely shared by many others. We are all flawed, and our task is to uncover which flaws are ours. Most of all, recognize that in the midst of all the pain and damage wrought by Covid-19, we are being afforded a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to redefine ourselves as we emerge from seclusion. As with any significant, lengthy disruption, we can begin anew and be a better version of ourselves. Doing so is certainly not easy—the challenge may be daunting. But it will never be more achievable and it is certainly worth the effort.

Mark (Moishe) Bane is president of the OU and a senior partner and chairman of the Business Restructuring Department at the international law firm Ropes & Gray LLP.

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This article was featured in the Summer 2020 issue of Jewish Action.
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