Finding inner freedom in quarantine
As Pesach, the time of our freedom, approached, I felt like our liberty was fading away. It feels like forever ago, but it’s been less than a month since most of us were free to go where we pleased and participate in gatherings of any size and kind. Since then, many of our liberties have been suspended. We can’t go to schools or houses of worship, arrange or partake in large gatherings to celebrate great joys or mourn the deaths of loved ones, or even invite guests to our Pesach meals.
This is necessary and fair—just as my right to swing my fist ends at your nose, my rights to go where I want and gather with whomever I please ends where my fellow human beings’ rights not to be exposed to a deadly disease begin. It is right and just for all of us to put important components of our lives temporarily on hold so that millions of people can be protected from death and grief. Closing schools, synagogues, and gathering places, staying at home (unless you’re an essential worker who can’t work from home) and not inviting guests are all Pikuach Nefesh (life-saving), and therefore a great and essential mitzvah we must observe. Nonetheless, I felt unsettled celebrating Pesach in a time when I, and so many others, felt deeply unfree. What freedom could we celebrate this year?
I found tremendous comfort and strength in Natan Sharansky, a heroic leader of the Jewish freedom and human rights movements in the former Soviet Union who spent more than four years in solitary confinement and a total of nine years in Soviet prisons. He is using his experience to advise us on how to respond to isolation; he reminds us how much we can still determine for ourselves, and urges us to remember that we all have essential roles to play in a global struggle against the spread of coronavirus, to make productive plans that we can fulfill regardless of external circumstances, to keep our sense of humor, to stay engaged in hobbies, and to remember that we are never alone. The common thread running through all these wonderful pieces of advice is a reminder that we can still control the most important aspects of our lives: our attitudes towards ourselves and each other, our thoughts, our words, and our actions.
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This means that even as our freedom seems to be indefinitely postponed, we have the power to become more deeply free than we’ve ever been. Freedom is not something external forces give to or take away from us; it is something we must develop within ourselves.
Freedom is not primarily about our circumstances, but rather about how we choose to respond to them. We have the power to choose how to respond to the difficult situation in which we currently find ourselves. We can choose to speak words of kindness and to act with generosity, kindness, warmth, respect, and love for our fellow humans. We can choose to continue social distancing, taking other precautions and listening to experts so that we can protect our families and communities. We can choose to use our time in isolation to learn, rest, develop skills, and reach out to friends and vulnerable community members over the phone and the Internet. We can actually get closer to beloved friends and families, especially those who live far away; distance is no longer so relevant. We can choose to do what we can to support individuals, communities, and organizations who are suffering from and fighting against the coronavirus. With much practice and struggle, we can learn to fill our minds with self-affirmation, gratitude, and love. This Pesach, let’s rediscover, celebrate, and strengthen our freedom to respond to bad circumstances by acting like the kind and magnificent beings we are, and coming together with generosity, warmth, gratitude, and love.
Eliana Sisman is a proudly Jewish and autistic student, writer, conversationalist, science lover, food enjoyer and amateur chef, neighborhood safety committee member, aspiring public health worker, and passionately idealistic dreamer and advocate for justice and freedom for all. She is a rising senior at her high school and lives in Los Angeles with her absolutely wonderful parents.