Mourning, healing, and proximity in a COVID world

There is a story told in the Talmud (Tractate Berakhot, 5b) about Rabbi Yohanan. He possessed a great healing ability, the unique ability to listen and hold the pain of the other, and he had also experienced unimaginable loss as 10 of his children died in his lifetime. In one famous story he goes to visit Rabbi Hiya bar Abba who is ill.

Rabbi Yohanan asks Rabbi Hiya: “is your suffering dear to you.”

“No,” says Rabbi Hiya.

“Then give me your hand,” says Rabbi Yohanan.

Rabbi Hiya extends his hand and Rabbi Yohanan miraculously cures him, the story goes. The underlying message: there is something truly healing about being in the presence of another.

In this time of the pandemic, one of the sufferings that we have witnessed again and again is the loneliness of those who are ill and those who are mourning. Hospitals have limited corridors for the sick alone. Those who have to go into hospitals for treatments must not only go alone but then also worry about exposure to COVID-19.

Our experience of mourning during this grief-stricken period has been one of witnessing trauma layered with more trauma. Families are unable to hold their loved ones at the end of life — forced to be apart, which is further compounded by funerals where families either must be absent entirely, or stand six feet apart, faces with masks, toting their own shovels. Much of it feels surreal, though all too real. We have walked families through this agony throughout the last three months, many times needing recovery ourselves because of the sheer pain of the entire experience.

We have talked together at length lately about how some of the most meaningful rituals within Jewish practice: avelilut (mourning), burial, shiva, and bikkur holim (visiting the sick) no longer possess, in the way they did before COVID, pathways to lead the sick or the mourner to feel, quite literally, held. These millennia-old practices were exquisitely constructed to elicit moments of person to person interaction, a chance for one human heart to help fill the empty space of another’s broken heart. And their absence can be emotionally and physically excruciating.

Though we do not have a salve, we have noticed something shift during this period: the power of language, and in particular, the potency of its most visceral delivery mechanism — voice (including real-time transcription).

Left without the opportunity for an in-person, physical encounter, we have had to rely almost solely on the comfort of our words: comfort through a phone call, through texting, and through the very conscious tones we communicate over zoom.

But can the sound of one’s voice, or the reading of words/lips, create physical proximity?

It has to.

Our rabbinic tradition, in several places, asserts that when God desires an intimate experience with one of God’s creations, the voice chosen is one of familiarity. One midrash suggests that when God addresses Moses from the burning bush, God chooses to sound to Moses as his father would sound.

Another midrash, quite famous, claims that when God gave Torah, God’s voice was heard by each and every individual in precisely the way they needed to hear it (which we would have believe including the capacity for those who couldn’t hear to see the words). A voice they would respond to, as it were.

These teachings deeply resonate with our experience of pastoral care in a COVID world. While our bodies may be distant from one another, there is still the possibility of a physical connection through voice, which vibrates throughout the listeners body creating sensations that offer at least a measure of solace during this unimaginable period.

These interpretations also resonate with the scientific explanation of how humans process sound — vibrations moving at different frequencies, creating sound waves, then bouncing on the eardrum. These vibrations meet up with tiny bones in the ear before moving on to the inner ear, which is filled with a liquid that processes the vibrations, converts them into electrical impulses, before finally traveling to the brain.

The brain, ever-magical, interprets the impulses, and then translates them into a number of possible feelings, memories, thoughts, and activities. This is true of sight as well (for those seeing the words), as the same element of the brain that processes are senses is partially processing emotions as well.

We as clergy have become all too aware of what is and what isn’t under our control. We have quickly re-learned our various limitations, and they are many.

But also, in the context of facing previously absent restrictions, we have found our voices, so to speak. We have seen the power they possess. We have felt the reverberations flowing through our community. We have embraced this new song, embedded in ancient wisdom and cadence.

Before COVID, a list of people to call to check in with was often simply that, a list. We saw phone calls as a follow up to those we would visit in person. But now, the list is no longer just a list — it is an invitation to proximity. It is an invitation to enter another’s world and to bring a closeness that is so desperately needed at this time.

Min ha-meitzer karati Yah — “from a very narrow place I called out,” says the Psalmist. For now, we will answer the call through the power of the voice until we can one day be in person again.

Rabbis Lauren Holtzblatt and Aaron Alexander are Senior Rabbis of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC. You can find their daily teaching and reflections during COVID-19 at

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Mourning, healing, and proximity in a COVID world

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