From Pandemic to Purpose
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It is with this thought, with all its qualifying kinehoras, that this morning I want to pose the following question: Before we do return to normal, please God, is there anything from this pandemic experience that we want to take with us on our journey forward? Are we any wiser, stronger, changed for the better in any way? As I have said before, none of us chose this and I don’t believe there is any providential purpose to the misery. As the ailing Rabbi Hiyya said to Rabbi Yohanan in the Talmud, “I welcome neither the suffering nor its reward.” (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5b) And yet, we have all experienced something. Individually and collectively, we have adjusted, we have adapted, we have proven resilient, and we have confronted our mortality. Our Torah reading opens with the red heifer ritual by which a person who has had contact with a corpse reenters the community. Not even King Solomon understood the ritual. I certainly don’t – other than the fact that somehow it teaches that a brush with death demands that a person both absorb and exorcise the trauma of that experience. We have all had a brush with death and now there is talk of reentry. What shall we keep and what shall we purge? Is there anything we have learned about ourselves that we should take with us when, please God, this chapter of our lives is but a memory.
Let’s begin with the easy and the fun. We have learned new skills and taken on new habits. The awkward “bro-hug” has been replaced by the awkward “elbow bump” – not a bad outcome if your vocation involves greeting countless people you don’t know. We have become better cooks, better bakers, or in my case, cocktail makers. Who would have thought that I could be really good at having cocktails at 5:00 pm, to name but one of many possible hours of the day? We have become specialists in our favorite Netflix series. Who knew that I could care so much about the royal family and the actors who play them? I will readily debate anyone on whether Claire Foy or Olivia Colman makes a better Queen Elizabeth. How about our clothing? Did we ever imagine that workout apparel could have so many purposes? We take meetings in our gym clothes, while eating breakfast, and with our pets in our laps, and the world has not come to an end. There has been something deeply humanizing about this pandemic; it has taught us that we all put on our sweatpants one leg at a time. We have learned that not every meeting requires a taxi into midtown, that going for a walk with a person can be better, cheaper, and healthier than a lunch, and that our children can dance on TikTok with a freedom and rhythm that their parents can only dream of.
We have picked up a few skills and acquired bit of wisdom along the way. I have my list and I imagine you have yours. But the things I really want to talk about are not the “things” – the puppies and Pelotons purchased – but the more profound and potentially enduring lessons of this pandemic. For the sake of clarity, I will put them into three baskets, three interconnected categories, which I will call appreciation, attention, and intention.
In a perfect world, it shouldn’t take a pandemic for us to appreciate the blessings of our lives, the precariousness of life, or the realization that we are all hanging by a thread, but for many of us COVID has had that effect. I was speaking to a buddy of mine who shared that every morning he now wakes up and tries to name out loud the blessings of his life that he might otherwise take for granted: to be healthy, to have a roof over our head, to have the sun rise and set every day. This was the first time in my life, or at least since the gas lines of ’79, that I actually thought about scarcity – what we might not have – and I found myself deeply appreciating what I do have. To have dinner with my children every night was a bonus that I wasn’t expecting – like getting an extra ball in a pinball game – something that I hope will pay dividends for the rest of my life. Before COVID I didn’t call my parents every day; I try to do so now. Not for everyone, but for many, COVID has brought us closer, with conversations about mortality and children parenting their parents by shopping for them, setting up their IT needs, and scolding them for going out when they should know better. This pandemic has caused us to consider who we choose to be in our bubbles – our family beyond our biological family. We have all been reminded of the importance of community, both because we have missed it so desperately and because virtual community has been our lifeline. We have discovered that life, even circumscribed, can still be beautiful. As a rabbi, I am grateful that this pandemic has democratized the bnei mitzvah experience. There is no “keeping up with the Steins.” What a discovery it has been that one’s Jewish identity is not actually contingent on the extravagance of the celebration. How terrific it has been to see that kids are just as proud and parents kvell just as much even when only family and close friends are in the room on their special day.
It is not just that we appreciate life more now. It is that we appreciate what matters more than we did before. And that, though we did not choose it, is not a bad thing. We have gained a sense of appreciation and clarified values that I hope will endure long into the future.
All of us are, in ways we weren’t before, paying attention to the cracks in society and the things that ail the world. Because I deeply appreciate the blessings of my life, I am also deeply aware that in a world of haves and have-nots, I am among the former and not the latter. If I ever heard the term “essential worker” prior to the pandemic, I can’t recall, but I know that in the e-commerce world in which we live, I am doing the ordering not the delivering. How is it that we call a person essential one day and do not take a stand that healthcare is an essential need of every human being? A pandemic that has prompted millions of women to drop out of the work force should prompt us to sit up and ask ourselves about our shared obligations to provide adequate childcare. A pandemic that has shone a spotlight on educational disparities should make it self-evident that infrastructure is not just about roads and bridges but about wi-fi access and virtual education. How is it that this pandemic caught us so off-guard? Do you remember those photographs of Mount Sinai nurses in garbage bags? I do. Yes, the development and mass production of effective vaccines is a spectacular achievement that should be studied, but there have also been spectacular failures from which we must learn. What must we do now, while we are all paying attention, to make sure we are ready if this happens again?
For those paying attention, this pandemic has brought into full relief uncomfortable truths that preceded the pandemic and extend far beyond the pandemic. We all now know that what happens in China does not stay in China. It is true of a pandemic, and it is also true of climate change, immigration, and a whole lot of other global forces that neither recognize nor care about borders and boundaries. We need a total rethink about how we balance our interests as citizens of our country and of the world. Consider the present debate regarding global vaccine distribution. Were it just about a humanitarian imperative, that would be enough. But it is more. It is about self-interest, about protecting ourselves by way of helping others. As the saying goes, “No-one is safe until everyone is safe.” It should not be lost on us that this very pandemic that has prompted us to enter into isolated bubbles has also forced us to acknowledge how connected we all are. From wearing a mask to getting vaccinated, this pandemic has taught us about our interconnectedness, how the actions that matter for ourselves also matter for each other; we all contribute toward our shared well-being. These truths existed long before COVID, but we are paying attention to them in ways we had not been before, and we need to keep paying attention long after this moment.
Which leads us to our third and final category: intention.
If the first effect of this pandemic is to teach us to appreciate what we have, and the second lesson alerts us to the need to pay attention to the cracks in our world, then it seems to me that the enduring lesson of this pandemic is that we commit to live our lives with a newfound intentionality and sense of purpose. We now know that we cannot control the world in which we live, but we can take control of those choices within our sphere of influence. The other day I went for a walk with a twenty-something who grew up at our synagogue, who shared with me that this pandemic has prompted her to reflect more deeply on the vocation she is choosing, the relationship she is building, and the Jewish life that she aspires to live. Maybe it is because we realize that life is precious; maybe it is because we are all coming out of our bubbles. But I can feel in the air that people are pressing a soft reset on their lives. Sacred cows, apropos of our Torah reading, are being killed. There is a collective and liberating declaration of “Who wrote the rules?” Institutions are rethinking work/life balance. People are rethinking lifestyle, location, careers, and otherwise. Everybody is a millennial now, challenging received assumptions before jumping back onto the hamster wheel of life. Most of all, in recognizing that we only get one go around in this world, people are extending themselves the courtesy of asking themselves what is actually important to them – in work, in family and in community. Some of them, I hope, are taking steps to live intentionally – to live in a manner that reflects the aspiration of making our ideals reality.
I hope and I pray that this pandemic will pass. I pray for the comfort of those in pain and I pray that the memory of those whom we have lost will ever be remembered for a blessing. I look forward to the day when this is all a memory, when my grandchild or great-grandchild calls me up because her social studies assignment is to interview someone who lived during the time of the “Great COVID-19 Pandemic.” But that day is far in the future. Right now, the best we can do may be to emerge from all this a bit wiser, a bit stronger, and changed for the better. Indeed, I can think of nothing better for you to do this summer than to consider how your own values and priorities have been clarified by this chapter of our lives. And then, equally important, resolve to go forward from this day with a greater appreciation for your blessings, greater attention for our world in need of repair, and a heightened commitment to live intentionally – filling your days with purpose, meaning and impact.