All that befalls us contains a message to be deciphered, which we can ignore at our own risk
As the horizon begins to brighten, at least in America and Eretz Yisrael (even as huge swaths of the globe like India and Brazil face record-breaking spikes in new infections) and the outlines of a post-COVID future take shape in fits and starts, we can begin doing our individual spiritual inventories.
Granted, an honest inventory is never simple, because there’s a psychological hurdle people often need to surmount in order to make that personal accounting. There is, of course, the usual lethargy we experience when it comes to doing the right thing, whether we label it inertia, atzlus, or the yetzer hara.
But in this particular context, the challenge is different, stemming from the fact that we’re so focused on getting over this dark, depressing, and for some of us, tragic, period in our lives and leaving it behind. We feel at times like someone fleeing a burning building, G-d forbid, and we don’t want to even glance backward for a moment.
Even for those who emerged personally untouched by the more severe forms of the tzarah so many others experienced, still, we just want to be done with it all: The fear and uncertainty, the isolation, the stifling unbearable burdens of kids out of school and working from home, the masks and the lockdowns, and the dissection of, and dissension over, every aspect of masks and lockdowns and vaccinations and every other social, religious, and political macro- and micro-issue, and on and on.
To introspect, however, about what this unique time has taught us about ourselves and about life, and certainly to engage in the classical Jewish way of responding to travail by asking ourselves mah zos asah Elokim lanu — all of that runs directly counter to the impulse to just run for our lives from that burning building called COVID and never give it another thought.
Yet although the flight impulse is both understandable and sometimes even necessary, more often than not, impulses are there to be resisted. We can succeed in separating the need to get over this time physically from the importance of not “getting over it” spiritually, but instead fearlessly walking through it and finding our spiritual takeaways.
If a person who’s suffered an injury later meets a friend who inquires after how he’s doing, the sweetest words he can say are, “Baruch Hashem, I’ve turned the corner, put it behind me. I’m on the mend, and the injury has had no lasting effects.”
Yet, we understand that those same words, transposed into spiritual terms, would indicate a substantial obtuseness to how Hashem runs His world. All that befalls us contains a message to be deciphered, which we can ignore at our own risk — because all the events of our lives are there to shape who we are going forward.
One thing to take note of as we go about reflecting on the past year is that many of the assumptions we make about our lives may often be simply incorrect, or at least may limit us in our ability to change and grow. A recent Pew poll, for example, found that 54 percent of people who can work online would like to continue doing so from home after the pandemic is over, and another 33 percent said they’d like to do so part-time.
Although the nature of many employees’ jobs will not allow for working remotely — including the great majority of those with a high school education or less — for those who can, it could mean a vastly improved quality of life, an opportunity to right the work-life balance. Surely, business offices will continue to operate in the post-COVID reality, as those in real estate and related fields must fervently hope.
But COVID may well have gifted many employees with a possibility they’d never contemplated: many more choices about when and where they’ll do their work, enabling them to do away with long commutes and unduly long workdays. That in turn means more time to spend with their spouses and children and the chance to integrate a higher-quality of avodas Hashem into their busy lives.
Another surprising positive turn of events emerging from this last year: The Institute for Family Studies reports that teenagers got more sleep, felt closer to their parents, and had a more positive outlook on life in 2020 than in 2018. Over half reported spending more time talking with their parents during COVID than before, and over two-thirds said their families had drawn closer.
And here’s some more good news. Marriages seem to have survived and thrived. Couples reported more stress in 2020, but despite that — or because of it — they also tapped previously undiscovered resources of resilience and renewal. The percentage of married people who described their marriages as “in trouble” descended from 40 percent in 2019 to 29 percent in 2020. A majority of couples reported that the experiences of this period deepened their commitment to their marriage and that the difficulties had made them appreciate their partners more. In fact, divorce rates are now dropping, and despite dire predictions, suicide rates actually fell by five percent.
The upshot is that we are often too timid about the possibility of change, assuming that because we’ve always done things a certain way, that’s how they must be done. A workday that will allow me to have dinner with my spouse, play with my kids, and learn more and daven slower? Impossible! But maybe not.
And we sometimes forget that although no one actually wishes for rocky circumstances to come their way, they often end up enriching our lives. We underestimate our potential for endurance and growth, taking it for granted that if certain circumstances were to materialize, they would be intolerable. Who would have thought a year ago that we’d be cooped up together in a small home for months, and not only survive and emerge intact, but maybe even better?
Now is the time to hold tight to two most important beliefs: that Hashem places us in our life situations for us to find the seeds of potential growth sown therein; and its corollary, belief in ourselves, and our capacity for thinking and doing differently, and adapting to any reality He sends our way.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 858. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at email@example.com
Oops! We could not locate your form.