All week I have been trying to write about the virus. There have been stops and starts, with complicated arguments with lots of links, fueled by my own anger and confusion and fear. So this time I’ll try to keep it simple and write from the heart.
Here in the SF Bay Area, every day has brought new cancelations, closures, and warnings. As of Monday, all four of us will will be in the house, working remotely. I need to increase our internet bandwidth, and hope we can find a way to make it work in our small house.
What guidance can we take from Mussar to both retain our humanity, and show up as our best selves in this time of trial? Here are a few soul traits to focus on.
1. Trust, as in trust in the Divine. This might seem like a strange place to start, especially if you are unsure of the Divinity. My mussar group met by Zoom this week, just finishing two weeks on Trust. It was amazing that everyone said it was always on their mind, and helped them be thoughtful about what to do and what not to do. There were both canceled trips, and vacations that went forward. By focusing on Trust, people gave a lot of consideration about what they should do.
In addition, remember the Trust mantra: Trust in God but tie your camel. Our government institutions have let us down by not planning an appropriate response, so we need to do more of the camel tying on our own. Important things to do include:
- washing your hands
- staying home if you are sick
- staying home if you are over 60 or at risk medically
- staying home if you are in a region with a growing number of cases.
You might have noticed a certain theme in these suggestions: Staying home.
2. Humility. Many of us walk through life with the illusion that we are in control. But we as individuals and are powerless against this epidemic. Humility is about recognizing one’s place in the universe, and taking appropriate actions. As the facilitator of the Mussar group, it was my decision to not meet in person. You need to make informed decisions, about yourself and the groups you may lead.
You might think that it won’t happen to you, or that you are healthy and are likely to survive even if you get it. But what about the people you give it to? Many people are walking around symptom free, which is why staying home is so important. Our contribution makes a difference, to make it less likely that we’ll get sick, AND less likely that we’ll pass it on. Only by working together can we get through this in the best way possible. If we all stay home, for sure the spread of the virus will slow dramatically. If too many people get sick at once, the hospitals get overwhelmed and more people die.
3. Generosity. Are the grocery shelves in your area empty? They are here, and I just discovered that we actually are almost out of toilet paper. Stocking up to minimize leaving home is sensible, but some people are taking it way too far. Buying up more than you need is the worst form of miserliness.
People in service jobs need our Generosity. They are being hurt by people staying home. If you cancel something, pay for it anyway. For example, I didn’t go to my gym, but I paid the trainer anyway. He doesn’t make a lot of money, and I’m sure he will be struggling as people cancel training sessions with him.
The way we will get through this is by pulling together, and helping those in need. Remember Judaism teaches that everyone is required to give Tzedakah (charity) even if they receive Tzedakah themselves. Even if you are financially impacted by the various shut downs, remember that some people are worse off. Find a way to give to others, of time, money, or attention.
It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that I’m reading the books of the Prophets for class this week. They follow a general structure, that includes warnings of impending destruction, followed by a message of hope. After the calamity there will be a rebuilding, and a time of renewal.
Make no mistake, we are facing a time of calamity. Even if the virus is contained, and we don’t see millions getting sick, the economic and social impact will be huge. This is not a punishment; it is a consequence of living in a dangerous world. We will get through this, and afterwards we will rebuild. What kind of world do we want to have?
I invite you to make the most of this opportunity. One of my students said, “I realized that I am not living my life the right way. I need to start doing things differently. I am going to really start to look within.”
I’ve shared with you some Mussar responses to the coronavirus pandemic. I am very much redoubling my efforts to look within, and clean house while I’m inhabiting it.
I hope you’ll join me.
This post inspired a weekly American Mussar Community Gathering on Zoom. You can learn more here.