Ritual as Resilience in Times of Plague

JONAH GELFAND

I woke up the other day and looked out the window to see an unlikely form of precipitation dusting my backyard: apocalyptic ash. Any other month I might’ve been surprised, but this April, as I woke up in my sixth week of quarantine, it only seemed natural. It was all I could do to keep from panicking until I realized that it was just a late-season snow (honestly, no less scary). I shook my head and got dressed. Then I did what I have done everyday for the past year: I laid my tefillin and I prayed. 

And this is what I want to talk about.

Nothing right now is normal; everything is fucked. I was supposed to graduate this May. Instead, I will be holed up at home with my family, while my friends are scattered across the country. In addition to the immediate threat to lives, this virus is destroying the plans of a whole generation of young folks and exposing the supreme folly of our human desire to order the world around us. I am a planner, but I gotta admit, I never saw this one coming. 

The day I prematurely drove home from my senior year of college, it became abundantly clear to me that any semblance of control over my life was merely illusory. My only life vest in this vast sea of uncertainty has been Jewish ritual. Not only does it grant me a small degree of control, but it provides me tools for confronting, and continuing to live, amidst the chaos. The rituals that were part of everyday practice prior to the pandemic take on new meaning in the quarantined world; they become a toolkit for resilience.

The first thing I noticed shifting meaning was the actual prayers. In the first prayer of the day, the Modeh Ani, I thank God for restoring my soul to my body in the morning. This is traditionally said “before your feet touch the ground,” which sets up my whole day to be based on gratitude for life. Grounding myself in this gratitude is a powerful practice and a good reminder that I am not only trying to survive, but to live. After this prayer, I go into the morning liturgy, which directs my thoughts to the healing of friends, family, and the larger world. 

In the midst of this economy-shattering and inequality-exposing pandemic, the practice of blessing food has also taken on new meaning. The individualized blessing for each distinct food group has always provided the conscious eater with a grounded understanding of food systems, but as acquiring food becomes more difficult, ritual expressions of gratitude can offer a new appreciation. The harsh realities of the pandemic exposes the obvious truth that our “essential workers” are those who actually get our food to us; the farmers, truckers, warehouse workers, grocers, and Instacart employees that provide us with our sustenance. Before I take a bite of anything, I have to slow down and remember which individualized blessing corresponds to the food, which yields time for offering gratitude to those who are putting their lives on the line to get it to me.

 

Lastly, my observance (celebration!) of Shabbat has become even more urgent. Traditionally, this day is set aside as a holy day of rest from the mundanity of the week. To honor this, religious Jews abstain from many activities, such as the use of electronics, which feels particularly important for me during this time. I don't know about you, but I start each day by checking the news and reading nothing but tragedy. Though there is obvious value and necessity in knowing how to protect myself, my community, and the strangers around me, constantly reading about COVID all day, every day, without a break is not productive. It just leads to burning out and fear. Spend the week properly educating yourself, then take one day off. Give yourself a day to enter the alternate reality of shabbos, you deserve it! 

You don't have to be religious to be grateful for life. You don’t have to be spiritual to be grateful for the front-line workers. And you definitely don't have to be Jewish to take a break from your phone. These rituals wouldn’t have been practiced for thousands of years if they were not helpful. I can only speak for myself, but I have found illumination in my otherwise dreary quarantine life within the Torah I consume and the rituals I perform. If nothing else, just the establishment of regularity has been important. I’m not telling you to do any or all of these, but just that they have been supportive for me. And God knows, we need support in this time.

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