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‘How will our routines change when all of this is over?’

The author and his family.

The author and his family. Image by Courtesy of Benjamin David

Routine is a construction, and so many of us are trying to construct some kind of routine amid days that blend together. In my house the routine used to be clear, crystallized by years of careful shaping and re-shaping. We learned to leave for the bus stop two minutes earlier. We pushed bedtime up or back depending on seasons and moods. We figured out exactly when to have dinner so as to be clear of our baseball practice and meeting schedules.

Quarantine has forced a steeper learning curve. My wife, who oversees an overnight camp, works full time from home these days. I do too, as the rabbi of a large suburban synagogue. Our children are 12, 10, and 7. Like so many communities in New Jersey, we in Mount Laurel are reeling from the physical and emotional toil of the corona virus. Lisa and I have managed to piece together a loose schedule that takes us from meals to schoolwork to outside time, all while we try to attend to endless professional responsibilities. She is dealing with a community devastated by the recent cancellation of camp. I’m dealing with a congregation that has been stretched thin spiritually and psychologically. 

Rabbinic life has never entailed a 9-5 existence. I’m accustomed to calls about funerals coming in the middle of dinner and anxious Bat Mitzvah parents texting me late on Sunday nights. I’m used to stepping away to chat with our synagogue president about a budgetary issue or staffing concern. But now that reality has ratcheted up exponentially as I FaceTime with wedding couples while my kids play X-Box in the background or lead shiva services over Zoom while our boys try to finish their homework in the next room.

The one respite has come in the form of Daf Yomi, the practice of studying Talmud daily. Like many around the world, I read a page of Talmud each day, moving ever-slowly through the 2,711 double-sided pages of wisdom and legend that make up the quintessential rabbinic collection. Among so much else, Daf Yomi has connected me – even if virtually – to all who study Talmud daily, reminding me I’m part of an expansive Jewish community, even while cloistered at home. 

The practice of Daf Yomi goes back to the First Zionist World Congress and began in earnest on Rosh HaShanah Day in 5684 (September 1923). One Daf Yomi cycle, bringing readers through every last aspect of Jewish life and law, takes roughly seven years to complete. Organized by subject, written in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic, the Talmud is as much a history text as it is an anthology of Judaic discussion and biblical interpretation. It reads like a compendium of Judaism’s greatest thinkers: Akiva, Hillel, and Yehuda HaNasi to name a few. 

This is my second go-round with Daf Yomi and – more than ever – I am so thankful to have such a steady presence in my life. The Talmud knows nothing of the CDC, nothing of the news, nothing of curve flattening or social distancing. It has nothing to say about ingesting bleach. Instead it deals in questions of faith and worship, ritual practice, notions of purity, helping the downtrodden and lifting up the fallen. It is an enduring guide, a moral compass for Jewish communities across time and space, from those who faced the Cossacks to those who suffered their fate in Nazi Germany and Poland.

Each night before bed, I read my page. It is the singular predictable element of my day, my one break from frantic texts, unruly weather, online ordering, unsettling press conferences, the relentless scheduling and re-scheduling. We are currently in the second of the sixty-three tractates, Tractate Shabbat, a massive volume that explores every angle of our Sabbath, including work that can and cannot be done, which prayers to recite and when, and extensive commentary on the division of public and private space.

This final piece is important as it informs those Shabbat-related tasks which should be resigned only to the private life and those only to the public.

It’s a question which has been captivating as of late as so much of my existence these days has me wondering about the division between the personal and public. What does it mean to be home all the time, but so desperately concerned about those outside my home? What does it mean to watch reports on screens about the many perishing in ICUs and makeshift facilities around our world? 

The Talmud has a word for those items that cannot be moved from one domain to another: muktze. The term includes items such as money or heavy objects, as moving these would constitute work or perhaps lead one to do work. I’m thinking along these lines too as I wonder about how – or when – we might return to pubic life. Will we ever be truly comfortable moving from the private to the public? Will we ever fully trust each other again? When will we let our kids play freely on the playground? How will our lifecycle events, our weddings and funerals, be different going forward? How will our interactions change?

How will our routines change when all of this is over?

I’m not sure I have the answers to those questions. And I’m not sure the Talmud does either. But I’ll keep reading my daily page and am looking forward to finding out. 

Benjamin David is the senior rabbi of Adath Emanu-El in Mt Laurel, New Jersey. His wife Lisa is the director of URJ Camp Harlam in the Poconos. They are the proud parents of Noa, Elijah, and Samuel. Rabbi David is a cancer survivor and avid runner, having completed 19 marathons. Follow him on Instagram or Twitter @RabbiBPD  

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