For the first time, in a very long time, there is hope in the air.
Restrictions are lifting, masks are coming off and people are returning to synagogue. Kids are leaving for summer camp, and the vaccines debates are no longer about availability, but whether enough people will avail themselves to them.
To be sure, there is no victory lap to be had. 600,000 people have died in our country, hot spots remain around the globe, and the bottom could drop out at any moment. But there is hope in the air and talk of a return to normal.
Theologically speaking, I do not believe there is any providential purpose to the pandemic; as the ailing Rabbi Hiyya said to Rabbi Yohanan in the Talmud, “I welcome neither the suffering nor its reward.” And yet individually and collectively, we have adjusted, we have adapted, and we have confronted our mortality.
There has been something deeply humanizing about this pandemic — we all put on our sweatpants one leg at a time. We have learned that not every meeting needs to be in person, that going for a walk with a friend can be better, cheaper and healthier than a lunch, and that our children can dance on Tik-Tok with a freedom and rhythm that their parents can only dream of.
But beyond the externals — the puppies and Pelotons purchased — are there more profound and enduring take-aways? Is there is anything from this experience that we want to bring with us on our journey forward? I can identify three baskets, three interconnected categories to consider: appreciation, attention and intention.
Ideally, it shouldn’t take a pandemic to recognize the precariousness of existence and appreciate the blessings of our lives. 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, at least since the gas lines of ’79, that I actually thought about scarcity.
To have dinner with my children every night — something that I hope will pay dividends for the rest of my life. Before COVID I didn’t call my parents every day — I do so now. For many, COVID has brought families closer — conversations about mortality, kids parenting parents, doing shopping for them, setting up their IT needs, scolding them for going out when they should know better.
This pandemic has prompted us to consider our family outside our biological family — whom we choose to be in our bubbles. We have been reminded of the importance of community, both because we have missed it desperately and because it has been our lifeline when done virtually.
As a congregational rabbi, I am grateful that this pandemic has democratized the b’nai mitzvah experience. What a discovery it has been to realize that one’s Jewish identity is not contingent on the extravagance of the celebration. It is not just that we appreciate life more now that we did before. It is that we are appreciative of that which matters more than we did before. A values clarification that I hope will endure long into the future.
All of us, in ways we may not have done before, are paying attention to the cracks of our society. If I ever heard the term “essential worker” prior to the pandemic I cannot recall. 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 societal obligation to provide ample childcare. A pandemic that has shone a spotlight on educational disparities should make it obvious that infrastructure is not just about roads and bridges but about Wi-Fi access and virtual education. What about health care? Remember those photographs of hospital nurses wearing garbage bags for lack of proper protective wear? How is it that this pandemic caught us so off-guard?
This pandemic has brought into full relief uncomfortable truths that both preceded the pandemic and extend far beyond the pandemic. We now know that what happens in China does not stay in China. It is true of a pandemic, climate change, immigration and a whole lot of other global forces that neither know nor care about borders and boundaries. This pandemic has taught us how our actions, be it wearing a mask or getting a vaccine, matter both for ourselves and our collective well-being. These truths existed before COVID but we are paying attention in ways we had not been before, and we need to keep paying attention long after this moment.
Third and finally: Intention.
Now that we know, more than ever, that we cannot control the world in which we live, we can nevertheless seek to control those choices within our sphere of influence. I recently went for a walk with a friend who shared with me that this pandemic has prompted her to reflect more deeply on the career she is choosing, the relationship she is building, and the Jewish life to which she aspires to be living.
What a discovery it has been to realize that one’s Jewish identity is not contingent on the extravagance of the celebration.
Maybe because we realize that life is precious, maybe because we are all coming out of our bubbles, folks are pressing a soft reset on their lives. Institutions are rethinking work-life balance and people are rethinking lifestyle, geography, career and otherwise. A collective and liberating declaration of “Who wrote the rules?” as received assumptions are being questioned before jumping back onto the hamster wheel of life. In work, in family and in community, now is the time to take steps to live with increased intention — in a manner that reflects the active effort to make our ideals a reality.
I hope that this pandemic will pass soon. I look forward to the day when a great grandchild of mine calls me up for an interview because her social studies assignment is to speak to someone who lived during the time of the “Great COVID Pandemic.” That day is still a ways away. Perhaps the best we can do right now is to emerge from this pandemic a bit wiser, a bit stronger and changed for the better.
Most importantly, we can resolve to go forward with a greater appreciation of our blessings, greater attention to our world in need of repair, and a heightened commitment to live intentionally — filling our days with purpose, meaning and impact.
Elliot Cosgrove is the rabbi of Park Avenue Synagogue, Manhattan.