Wednesday, August 05, 2020

At challenging times, wisdom often emerges from unlikely places.

During this period, one of those voices of wisdom has been Soviet Jewry legend Natan Sharansky. Sharansky, possibly the most famous Soviet refusenik, spent nine years in prison, much of that in isolation, for applying for an exit visa to Israel and for his involvement in the Soviet Jewry cause. 

As one who has spent time in isolation, Sharansky has been featured in a video that has gone viral called “Tips for Quarantine.” Of his many useful tips, Tip #3, is the one that caught the attention of many of the 14-year-olds that I teach weekly. 

“Number 3,” said Sharansky, is to “never give up on your sense of humor.” And certainly, for many of us who have shared memes, videos and jokes, we have used our senses of humor to gain some sanity during this taxing time. 

But this week, during the seminar with the eighth grade, some felt a bit uncomfortable when it comes to laughing during a pandemic. And there is a part of me that agrees. I am not sure if people laughed during 9/11 or during pogroms or genocides and certainly there is nothing funny about what is going on. It is simply a horror that will certainly bring more pain before it gets better. We should cry and weep, not laugh. 

But the words of Dr. Lori Gottlieb helped me to realize that human reaction to a plague is not so simple. She writes, “It’s true; a global pandemic isn’t funny. But as we all take measures to protect our physical health, we also need to protect our emotional health… Everyone copes with horrible situations differently. For some, humor is a balm. It’s both/and: It’s horrible and we can allow our souls to breathe” (Dear Therapist’s Guide to Staying Sane During a Pandemic). It is not an “either/or” that we either laugh or cry, it is that we need to do “both/and.” To keep healthy we need to both laugh and cry. This “both/and” approach is so necessary for us to internalize in this time of the COVID-19 crisis.

Jewish tradition often embraces this “both/and” mentality by embracing contradictions in many of our rituals. For example, we break a glass at the peak of joy, when the wedding ceremony is completed. On the other hand, we embrace hope on the saddest of days by marking the birth of the messiah on the day of mourning of Tisha B’Av. 

But there is no other time in the Jewish Calendar where the “both/and” is as present as it is at the Seder.

The Seder table is the “both/and’’ table, as we dress it up like royalty with fine China and crystal, with bowls of tears placed next to cups of freedom. 

The text of the Haggadah is a “both/and” text. As R. Steinsaltz points out in his introduction to the Four Questions, “The reason for asking is because on the night of the seder there are traditions with differing messages—some are rituals of freedom and redemption. Some are rituals of slavery and oppression. Therefore, it begs to question” (R. Steinsaltz Haggadah, p. 16). We also recite hashata avdei, today we are slaves and also say, lshana ha’baa bnei chorin, next year we will be free. We invite the Wise and the Rebellious children to the table and everyone in between. It is a night and a discussion filled with “both/and.” 

And we eat the “both/and’’ foods. Matzah, according to R. Steinsaltz, has two sides. One side is in remembrance of the slavery and the other is in remembrance of the redemption. Matzah is lechem oni, poor person’s bread. It also reminds us of the night of excitement and joy as we left in a blessed rush and could not wait for the bread to rise (p. 53). Matzah,the quintessential “both/and” food, is so much the symbol of the day that Pesach is called Chag HaMatzot in the Torah and beyond. 

And to take it one step further, we take the “both/and” food and we make a sandwich. We are commanded to place the ultimate symbol of the redemption, the Pesach sacrifice, on top of the ultimate symbol of the oppression, the maror, and eat both together on top of the matzah. Al matzot umorerim yochluhu (Bamidbar 9:11).

The Seder night is a night that begins with slavery and ends with freedom (matchil b’gnut u’msayem b’shevach) with the “both/and” experience found throughout. The Seder teaches us a lesson that we must pass on to our children that, contrary to what may seem most logical, most of life is not “either/or”; the human condition is mostly “both/and.” 

During this time of the COVID crisis, we are also embracing contradictory emotions. Screens and devices are “both/and.” It is both critical for all of us to be on our screens in order to work and learn and not healthy to be on them all day. 

How we approach time is also “both/and.” Yes, many have more time to clean out closets and pursue hobbies or read. And, at the same time, time is a stressor as no one knows how much time will pass and how this nightmare will end. 

How we approach our spiritual selves is also a “both/and.” On the one hand we feel that the world is more of a mystery than ever before, while at the same time, we feel more confident that we are grounded in the important things in our lives—family and friends and relationships. 

There is nothing joyous about the experience of slavery, where our ancestors were oppressed and their babies were killed. And there is nothing funny about the virus that is plaguing our world. But, like it or not, whether it is in the day-to-day routines of work or home or during dramatic times such as these, life brings us challenges that are beyond our control. 

And, like it or not, we have to cope with these challenges in order to be productive, healthy and giving people. We must respond ourselves and teach our children that one key to achieving this is to strike a healthy balance—a balance that is rarely achieved in the world of the “either/or”—but lives squarely in the world of the “both/and.”

Rabbi Aaron Frank is the head of school at Kinneret Day School.

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