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March 31, 2020 7:13 am

Quarantining the Body While Liberating the Soul

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

Opinion

A man rides a bicycle up a nearly-empty 6th Avenue in midtown Manhattan during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, New York, March 20, 2020. Photo: Reuters / Mike Segar.

These are the times that try parents’ souls.

How do we keep our spirits up and be a blessing rather than a burden, and uplift rather than be a weight, to our families and children? How do we inspire all those around us when we feel deflated ourselves?

We are in dark times. Locked in our homes, we feel unsure of what’s happening and clueless about what’s coming. Those who aren’t already struggling to make ends meet are worried they might soon have to.

Augment that with the shrill tone of the 24-hour news cycle and social media streams — and the pain and confusion begin to reach a fever pitch. And yet, we are urged — as Jews, by our faith; as Americans, by our values — to believe that somehow in this darkness, there remains something good.

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To be clear, I believe firmly that there is nothing to redeem the deadly viral contagion that has brought endless physical suffering and even death to many. As I learned from the Lubavitcher Rebbe, it is incumbent upon Jews to demand an end to death, loss, and apparent injustice on earth. God promised us that he would perfect the world, and in such states of terrible disrepair, we dare not justify any further delays on him lifting his concealment.

So I won’t try and find the light in death and illness, but will only protest it, and hope for and demand the days where “death is swallowed forever (Is. 25:8)” and peace reigns across the earth, down to our minds and bodies too.

However, with regard to the panic and uncertainty, the lockdowns and the quarantines, it seems that we have no choice but to redeem it, and to at least try and explore how, somehow, within this darkness there can be some good.

In the world of Hasidic thought, darkness is said to be redeemable in two distinct ways.

The first is well-known if not ubiquitous in Jewish philosophy and Kabbalistic thought. It’s what Ecclesiastes ֵcalls Yitaron Or Min Hachoshech — “the advantage of light from the darkness” (Ecc. 2:13).

It’s a deep spiritual concept, but it can be explained simply: During daytime, you’d barely notice if you left your headlights on. Yet, in the darkness of a moonless night, striking a single match can be transformative. Darkness emphasizes light, in physically obvious terms. Thus, the sages tell us, acts of kindness shine in a time of crisis with a special brilliance.

Indeed, today stories swirl around the media spheres of heroic doctors and neighbors, each proving in their own way that trying times can bring out the best in us. President Trump has said that, terrible as this scourge may be, it’s brought out “a spirit in our country like never before.” While it might seem like the economy is failing, the president insisted that in fact it isn’t. On the contrary, he assured our nation, the crisis was actually generating an invisible yet potent desire among the masses to get out and spend — something he termed a “pent-up demand.” I would put it differently, not referencing this in a material light but rather in the human desire to connect with others and be social.

Now more than ever, people are itching for a restaurant and dreaming up an uplifting vacation that will put smiles on their children’s faces. Sure there may be darkness, but from our inability to fly, there would soon be an abundance of adventure, parents exposing their children to the wonders rather than dangers of nature.

All of this may be true. That said, these theories do not fully redeem the darkness. After all, the darkness remains dim and uninspiring — it’s still the light that we desire. The darkness is merely a medium that serves to amplify the light.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe discussed the mystical concept of darkness at length in his many deep, complex Hasidic discourses, known as Ma’amorim. He spoke of how God was more accurately found in hiddenness than in revelation. He spoke of how “God makes his abode in darkness” (Ps. 18:12) and how one day, when the world would be inevitably perfected, darkness would shine like light: “Even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you” (Ps. 139:12).

Darkness wasn’t just a medium, but, mystically, an end unto itself. In fact, darkness itself would soon shine, he promised. Darkness itself would be transformed and exalted far beyond even light. This is Jewish mysticism at its deepest point, to the extent where I can all but question my own understanding of it. But I know that somewhere therein lies the second path toward a mental rescue from this plague of night.

All around us, as families huddle together, we see people reordering their priorities. Family dinners, which seemed confined to only a few occasions, are becoming regular events. The lost art of intimate conversation between husbands and wives is experiencing a rebirth as couples find solace in togetherness. Celebrities have lost their power to mesmerize, as people search for deeper meaning and lives suffused with greater purpose.

Yes, I know that we’re watching more Netflix and Amazon Prime than ever before. People need escapes. But we’re not following the daily breakfast activities of our favorite stars as obsessively as in the past.

I hate the coronavirus. I will not find an ounce of redemption in the virus itself. But I will focus on those things that were so precious well before this plague invaded our lives, and which remain precious even as we fight it. A time like this might hold something valuable for each of us, in and of itself.

It’s not for me to tell you how to build on this confusion. Each of us faces internal strife and struggle that cannot be addressed en masse. But what’s sure is that this uniqueness of our circumstances presents an opportunity equally unique: to look inside and introspect, and to look outside and reconnect.

We have all spent much of the past few years escaping from those issues that we’d be better off to solve. Who can blame us? Modern American life has made it all too easy. When distractions are everywhere, it’s hard to get around to the heavy-lifting of the heart. So we escape, because we can. That is, until many of those escapes are cordoned off. And we are left alone with ourselves, our families, and our God. In this special isolation, perhaps we could reinforce these crucial bonds — and re-learn to talk, to care, and to love.

As our selfless healthcare professionals and dedicated medical researchers battle the virus, we should transform these days into a soft rehab of the soul. Daunting though it may be, we can also turn our minds toward the world around us and do what we can to perceive God Almighty who guides and animates everything we see. Perhaps then we can be warmed by the knowledge that He too is in all the things we cannot see.

Darkness, King David tells us, is God’s abode. May it soon shine like the light of day, granting healing to the sick, comfort to the bereaved, destruction of this diabolical plague, and hope to all humankind.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is founder of the World Values Network and the author of 33 books, including Judaism for Everyone.

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