Global Jewish Reflections | Teshuvah, Tefillah, Corona: Marking the High Pandemic Days

In this final Elul reflection, JDC-Europe's director of Jewish education considers three Jewish lessons we can take from the coronavirus pandemic.

By David Levin-Kruss - Director of Jewish Education, JDC-Europe | September 18, 2020

Rabbi David Levin-Kruss (top left) teaches his online course, 'Jewish Insights In a Time of Corona

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the voices of rabbis and other spiritual leaders and Jewish educators from across the JDC world.

In Jewish tradition, Elul — the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah — is a particularly sacred time of preparation for the new year. To commemorate this special month, we present a weekly series of meditations on Jewish life, the year that was, and the year to come.

The novel coronavirus has cast its spell on all the Jewish special days. The masks of Purim were a premonition of the masks we would soon be wearing day in and day out. On Pesach, we asked how we could celebrate our freedom when we felt so restricted. Many of us tried hard on Yom HaShoah not to draw parallels between the Holocaust and now as the situations are so different, though we did not always succeed. And comparisons were made between the semi-mourning of the three weeks before Tisha B’Av and the way we live now anyway.

But this was all just a dress rehearsal for the coming High Holy Days. Even the most superficial amongst us has had a moment or two when the pandemic has caused us to examine our own lives and wonder whether we’re doing the right thing. That’s exactly what the High Holy Days are about.

These ideas were brought home to me during a recent course I led on behalf of JDC-Europe. Titled “Jewish Insights In a Time of Corona,” it mined classic Jewish texts to deal with issues such as: “How do I get through isolation?”; “Transitioning back to society”; and “What can I gain from this experience?”

When I look back at the course, unwittingly but not surprisingly, it was filled with thoughts appropriate for the High Holy Days.

Rabbi Levin-Kruss leads a group of counselors from Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international summer camp, in a havdalah service., during last year’s Unit Head training seminar.

The first class examined the psychological tools we need to survive the pandemic. We began with Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s five steps of grief that are helpful in negotiating any crisis: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Using Jewish texts, we discovered a complementary model that would take us from acceptance to thankfulness. These new, Jewish steps are: silence, reframing, give-and-take, action, and gratitude. 

Becoming a better person starts with reframing, with using a different paradigm to understand one’s life. All true prayer begins with the ability to be silent. And give-and-take and action are the essence of interacting with the world in a positive way. 

All of these are echoed in the words of the “Unetaneh Tokef” prayer read on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: “Repentance (teshuvah), prayer (tefillah), and charity (tzedakah) lessen the bitterness of the decree.” The steps that lead to gratitude are also the steps that help us deal with whatever life may challenge us with.

The second class dealt with leaving isolation. We looked at the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Shabbat 33b-34a) from the Talmud. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rashbi for short, criticized the Romans and had to flee and live in a cave for 12 years. Upon exiting the cave, he had trouble integrating into society and had to learn, not totally successfully, to combine the spiritual and the material. 

Our coronavirus situation is different from Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s condition. Our “cave” has Zoom, Netflix, and dozens of distractions. It could easily have become a very trivial time — and for many it did — but for others, it has become an opportunity to become deeper. The demand and popularity of courses such as the one I’m discussing or special shiurim (teachings) offered by Junction (the pan-European partnership between JDC, the Schusterman Family Foundation, and Yesod) or overflowing Shavuot learning sessions are signs that many turned their cave into a Rashbi moment. And we now face the challenge of integrating these new perspectives into our “normal lives.”

This is similar to the challenge posed by Cheshvan. The second month of the Jewish year, Cheshvan is a month without special days. It comes directly after Tishrei which has Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, days of introspection and deep thought, followed by the joyful holiday of Sukkot. In many ways, it is easy to be a Jew during the month of Tishrei — one has some Jewish obligation all the time. But living in the everyday world, the Cheshvan world, is the real challenge. Anybody can be pious in a cave without distractions. It’s taking what we have learned in Tishrei and transferring it to Cheshvan that is the true test of our values. 

Anybody can be pious in a cave without distractions. It’s taking what we have learned in Tishrei and transferring it to Cheshvan that is the true test of our values. 

The final class dealt with the more theological aspects of the experience: Where was God in all of this? How do we explain a pandemic that took over the world and often hurt the weakest members of our society most? Rather than looking at classic questions of theodicy, we examined another piece of Talmud, Sotah 14a, which speaks about imitating God. We said that the Jewish response to crisis is not to ask, “Why did this happen?” but instead, “Now that this has happened, what do I do?” This is what it means to behave in a godly way.

An example of not wallowing in grief or doctrine, but instead moving forward, can be found in the Torah reading on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. We read of Hagar who was banished from Abraham’s house. She wept bitterly, God heard her, “and God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Genesis 21:19). The well of water was already there. When Hagar’s eyes are opened, she sees what resources she has and uses them to advance. She goes beyond wailing to doing something about her situation.

This is exactly what JDC has been doing for the past few months — identifying its resources, getting more funds, and using those funds for welfare, education, and making the world a more godly place. JDC’s new emergency humanitarian relief fund for families affected by the economic crises caused by COVID-19 comes to mind as a key example. As of August, the fund has impacted close to 1,600 Jewish households in 11 European countries.

Rabbi David Levin-Kruss

We can learn much from the pandemic. We can learn how silence, introspection, and action can ease our situation. How we can take what we have gained in the ivory tower and bring it to everyday life. How we can harness our resources and use them to move forward.

They’re all important insights for this time of the year. May the insights gleaned from the coronavirus help us as we go on our annual journey of becoming better people and better Jews, and may we all come out to the other side wiser, deeper, and more thankful.

Rabbi David Levin-Kruss is the director of Jewish education for JDC-Europe.

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