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Three ways Jewish values are helping me embrace a healthier ‘new normal’

Like most people, I thought I would be happy to return to normal this summer.

I was grateful to be gathering with family to celebrate my mother’s 90th birthday in person. I enjoyed eating in restaurants again and making travel plans instead of sanitizing my groceries. But underneath that initial elation, as I stored my masks in the back of the drawer, I felt profoundly uneasy. What, exactly, were we returning to?

During the pandemic, I had missed the company of friends and colleagues, and my elderly mother who lives less than two miles away. I’d binge-watched more TV than I should. But I also wrote, painted and learned to become a vegan cook. The smallness of my world during the pandemic taught me the importance of a simple way of life, one that centered on prayer, meditation and quiet.

Despite all that was going on around us, as long as I stayed contained in our little house, I felt safe, focused and calm. I relied on rituals, such as lighting the candles for Shabbat, reciting the Modeh Ani prayer in the morning and the Shema at bedtime, to help me find a few glimmers of peace.

As the Delta variant rears its ugly head, I feel the return of the kind of stress that keeps me up at night and steals my appetite. But with Rosh Hashanah just around the corner, I’m leaning into the central concept of the holiday — teshuvah — with the hope that I can use it to make things just a little easier this time around.

The Hebrew word teshuvah, a central theme of the High Holiday season, is usually translated as “repentance.” But teshuvah also means returning to the natural order of things — and this is the spirit I’m attempting to embrace this year in particular.

Dedicated Silent Time

Despite being an outgoing person, I discovered that working in silence for the last 18 months has made me more productive, efficient and less stressed. When I recently returned to work in person, I was determined to preserve the silence that had served me so well during isolation.

Instead, by the third day, I was chatting it up with the rest of my conversation-starved co-workers. By the end of the second week, my nervous system was shot, and I spent most of the day in tears.

The lesson? I have to work to protect pockets of silence and solitude, even if they only last for a few minutes. If I do not set boundaries to protect the quiet I need, my mind will slip back into the stress and internal ruckus that is always waiting to take its place. If I accept the idea of teshuvah as returning, I have to ask myself — who is the person who is returning? Do I even recognize the new me? I’m beginning to. My changed sense of self is an important part of practicing teshuvah,because if I can be more accepting toward myself, I’m hopeful I’ll be more able to extend that understanding toward others.

Stop the Blame Game

One of my favorite aspects of remote working is the lack of interpersonal drama. I was blissfully freed of the gossip and head-butting that is par for the course in any work environment.

Now, if something goes wrong, the only other being around is our dog — and she’s perfect. I have developed a greater capacity to deal with obstacles and not externalize, thanks to the independence and self-sufficiency of remote work.

Rosh Hashanah provides us with the unique opportunity to reflect on our actions of the past twelve months, with the intention of becoming a more caring and responsible person. Over the past year and a half of spending an inordinate amount of time with myself, I feel ready to return to working in person with an increased level of self-knowledge, awareness, acceptance and forgiveness. The stressful months have taught me the importance of nurturing a life centered on these values, ones I won’t be relinquishing in the name of “normal.”

Busyness is not a Virtue

One weekend, our three daughters had three birthday parties in one day, all at separate locations. My husband drove one child to her party destination while I drove her twin sisters to the other, tossing sandwiches into the backseat so they’d eat something in addition to birthday cake. When one of the twins threw up in the van, I was thrilled. Second party, canceled!

When you start celebrating your child vomiting, it’s time to take stock. For as long as I can remember, I’ve believed that the busier your life is, the more meaningful.

In these isolated months, I discovered that the smallness of my world served to help me slow down. My days became simple: work, walk, yoga, write, cook. Sleep.

The Jewish New Year reminds me to stop and rediscover what it means to be a productive person. Instead of valuing my productivity based on the number of tasks I fit into a day, I’ve reoriented toward valuing the quality and nature of the tasks I accomplish. As I’ve returned to an office that thrives on the art of busyness, I’m taking my time re-engaging with that energy. Instead, I am turning towards the how and why of what I do, which is helping me retain the simple flow of my remote work life.

Let the Field of Stress Lie Fallow

At the beginning of the pandemic, our neighbors who own a bulk food store left a $100 gift certificate in our mailbox, not knowing whether or not we still had jobs. Another neighbor and I strung up fairy lights on our front porches as a sign of support for each other and our block. A friend with cancer sewed hundreds of masks for others and organized food drives.

I reflect back on the relief I began to feel when the tension in everyone’s eyes, the only part of the face we could see, began to soften. Throughout this sustained crisis, we’ve witnessed and hopefully experienced an increased level of kindness and community.

During this time of spiritual reflection, I’ve come to understand that to be at peace with returning, I have to also be at peace with living with the uncertainty of my regular, day-to-day life. At the beginning of the pandemic and for most of my life, I worked hard to create as much certainty as I could. In order to survive the stresses of the pandemic and the ever-changing situation, I had to let that need go.

The Holy Days are a touchstone of a deeper sense of certainty and represent an ancient continuum that I’m connected to, allowing me to face the days ahead with less anxiety, more calm, and faith.

Whether I’m baking a round challah, dipping apples in honey, or opening my heart to the sound of the shofar, the pandemic has taught me an important lesson – to stay present.

I’ll observe Rosh Hashanah with a heightened sense of what I have, what I’ve lost, what I can release, and what I can return to.

While I’m not sure of much, I am certain that this should be our new normal.

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