The months when a pandemic swept across our world and turned our lives into disarray were possibly the best months of my life.
I am not in denial. I understand fully what the consequences of the pandemic were — businesses hurt; precious lives lost. And yet, it was hard not to appreciate what was clearly a golden opportunity. It is a true fact that everything G-d does, even that which may seem bad, difficult, or unfair is for the good, for our good. I know I’m not the only one who saw the good, the gold and the growth.
In the late 1800’s, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote: “If I had the power, I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart! What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such [as practicing Jews] would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them – to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life.”
During the COVID lockdown, we finally had the chance to put into practice what Rabbi Hirsch wished but never, even in his wildest dreams, imagined could be executed.
If G-d is not present in every aspect of our lives, we are missing the point. Obviously we are G-dly and feel holy in the synagogue, but where is our G-d the rest of our days? Can we be G-dly at home when we’re eating and sleeping and exercising? How about when no one is watching? That is first and foremost where G-d must be manifest, in the areas that seem separate from holiness.
This is what Rabbi Hirsch dreamed of. He wanted everyone to prioritize, and then put into practice, all that we learn in the synagogue, that we students learn in schools, from our environments, and proudly answer to those who ask, “Where is your G-d?” that He is right here with us, not only in the moments that are clearly spiritual in synagogue, but particularly in the moments that we bring Him into our home and headspace, into our everyday activities, into our quarantine circle.
This world has a lot of noise. It follows me constantly. I always hear it. Sometimes it is a faint buzz I can live with. At other times, it is pure cacophony. It can reach deafening decibels, blocking out all else. It drowns out the facts and overwhelms me with fiction. It makes me forget the goal. And that is why I am most grateful for the months of quarantine. True, the literal noise level in my house rose to impossible levels, with relief coming in the form of a short daily car ride to see the light of day.
Those car rides fostered our first invention: the Drive Dad Mad game (I highly recommend it). Each child had five minutes to direct my father with simple directions such as left, right and straight. Where did we end up? We ended up learning every inch of our beautiful Palm Beach island. And we ended up back at home, back to another day of quarantine. And I ended up in a place where the noise of the world and its mixed messages was blessedly silent as I basked in the clarity of what is holy and right.
My father is a Chabad rabbi, but the Chabad House is a family project and we knew we needed to help our community. But how do you reach another person when you can’t be with them? Another invention was born: the Challah project. Our empty synagogue suddenly became a useful and bustling location in which Challahs were baked (corona safe, of course), packaged and adorned to be given out to thousands of people on the island. We had the space, we had the time, and we used the opportunity packing and giving and delivering for hours and days on end. As a typical selfish teenager, being thrust into the position of giving left me on a high that the best school counselors can only dream of for their most depressed students. The pandemic insisted that my Judaism not be limited to the synagogue or school, but that I make my Judaism my own. Here and now in the everyday.
A pandemic can try and keep synagogues closed for a hundred years, schools could insist on Zoom for a hundred years, stay-at-home orders could be in effect for a hundred years, and still, we would be practicing Judaism more deeply and honestly than ever before and enjoying every second. And so, you see, I am not scared for the future, only expectant of what’s to come.
Rivka Levitin is a student at the Rohr Bais Chaya Academy in Tamarac, Florida.