This d’var Torah was written during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, as Passover 2020 approached. While the specific circumstances have changed since its writing, the spiritual insights remain deeply relevant.
There are many things these days that can lead us to fear and anxiety. We may be worried about the health and safety of our loved ones, our friends, ourselves. We may worry about whether we will be able to secure and afford the food and supplies that we need. We may worry about whether we will have jobs, given the coming recession, or about our shrinking retirement savings or the size of our portfolios.
Min hameitzar karati Yah anani bemerkhav-yah, we read in Psalms 118:5, “I call out to You from a state of constriction; respond to me with spaciousness.”
We are definitely in a constricted place — physically at home, and emotionally, as we feel ourselves tensing at the latest frightening bit of news. How do we get from meitzar/constriction to merkhav-yah/a spacious, expansive place of the spirit?
One strategy comes from Genesis 3:6: “Ayeka? Where are you?” Adam and Eve have eaten the forbidden fruit, and God strolls through the Garden of Eden and calls to them: Where are you?
Following Hasidic interpretation and the teaching of Sylvia Boorstein, I understand that question as a perpetual, ongoing question directed to each of us at every moment: Where am I? Where am I in this moment? What is true in this moment? In this moment, I am sitting at home at my desk in my study, writing on my laptop. I am in good health, as is my husband, who is cleaning the house downstairs. These days of confinement together have been sweet — so far. I am spending a lot of time on Zoom, teaching and meeting. It is tiring.
At this moment, all the “what ifs?” are hypothetical: What if we have a plumbing emergency and have no access to a plumber? What is one or both of us catch the virus? What if the conditions of my ex-brother-in-law and ex-sister-in-law in New York City, who have been infected by the virus, deteriorate instead of improve? What if I die?
None of those “what ifs” are true in this moment. I can let them go, and if and when the worries return, I can let them go again and again. I am not obligated to imagine myself into a frenzy. I can live in the merkhav-yah, in the spaciousness, rather than in the meitzar, in the constriction.
In the 13th century BCE, perhaps at this time of year, a few weeks before the new moon of spring, Moses said to Pharaoh: “We won’t know what we need until we get there.” That remains true. We won’t know what we need until we get there. All we can do is cultivate a trust, a faith, an emunah, that even though conditions going forward are beyond our ability to imagine, we will respond with love and empathy and resolve to the best of our ability.
In the meantime, let us do our best to breathe deeply, to live spaciously, without constriction, for it is out of our open hearts, unburdened by self-protective defensiveness, that we are best able to meet each moment with loving generosity and ingenuity.