A Similar Tune, a Different Note

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BY RABBI LEVI SHEMTOV

levi shemtov headshotWe don’t know for sure how and when the current COVID-19 crisis will end, but as real conversations begin about reopening establishments and institutions, some contemplation is appropriate.

The world will probably sing a similar tune but on a different note — what my musician friends call “modulation” — as we build a new civilization, hopefully on a higher plane than we’ve been before.


As some call for new attention to climate change, this too can be considered in a spiritual and communal context, making more permanent the enhanced climate with the cleaner air of understanding and selflessness that we have seen from so many, especially first responders, during this trying time.

The unprecedented mandated shuttering of synagogues and communal infrastructure has caused prayer and Torah study to increase yet simultaneously plunge us without notice into a personal dimension never experienced before. Each individual or family has had to create their own designated spiritual spaces.

As a result of this sudden social distancing and isolation, many of us now know a lot we didn’t know before. At the very least, we know ourselves better, more deeply, and are more aware of what we truly care about and who truly cares about us.

We will slowly return to normal — whatever that word will mean — at some point, but until then, the opportunity for some very real introspection and proximation to our loved ones and to G-d as a result of even this experience is spiritually welcome and conducive.

Like Noah in the times of the biblical flood, we too have, in a sense, built ourselves an ark over the past number of weeks. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of sacred memory, reminds us of the dual meaning of the Hebrew word teivah, or ark, to also mean “word” — namely, the words of Torah and prayer. When the figurative storms and floods hit, we head for shelter in that ark, those words that provide us the refuge we need.

But when that flood ends and those torrential rains subside, we need to take the cue and exit the ark, or in this case, the word, and the comfort it was able to provide, and take it with us. One can’t stay sheltered forever.

We need to go back out into our world and our routine and get to rebuilding civilization. If we do know one thing, it is that the world we face will not be the same as before. Sure, the roads, buildings and other infrastructures survive, but we and our world are different and will remain so for a while.

Having done without so many previously perceived necessities for weeks or more, some things will become all but obsolete. Relationships and priorities will reshuffle. Watching so many people pass so suddenly certainly gives us pause, individually and collectively. Too many watched relatively healthy friends and relatives felled by the coronavirus, unable to even breathe properly, then just literally taken from us in a matter of days.

The Hebrew word for soul, neshama, is also the root for the word neshima, or breath. With every breath, life continues every day, 7 billion times around the world, every few seconds. When that is taken from someone, especially suddenly, life stops quickly. Let us then cherish every breath we are fortunate to take, better appreciating He who gives it to us and what we are expected to do with the life force it enables.

My father once told me about a bird he saw flying around an empty storefront near his office. He wondered how the bird survived in there. After some time, he noticed it merely hopping somewhat, unable to make it very far. He called the owner to alert him that the little bird seemed to be suffering in his store. When he came to unlock the place, the all-but-dead-looking bird, barely able to move, shuffled itself to the open door, summoning its last strength, and with a breath of the new fresh air, just flew away! Yes, we’ve been cooped up, losing our routines, and some people their very minds. A friend of mine who is a mental health professional reports skyrocketing prescriptions for medications to treat panic, anxiety and depression.

But the breath of fresh air is coming, and it’s time to muster our new strength when it comes, and fly.

The biblical Noah is the father of all mankind today, as all who lived at the time of the great flood in his time were destroyed. We might take his cue to be bold and unafraid. The Torah notes that Noah, who was so great that he walked with G-d, was great “in his time.” Actually, the Sages teach it cuts both ways. Either he was great despite all the immorality and idolatry of his time, or he was great only because of the contemporary dereliction of his day, but he would not have been as prominent in the time of say, Abraham, who acted with greater alacrity and without query to G-d’s will. Abraham also reached out to all those whom he met while they were spiritually unaware, with openness and kindness, enlightening them with love and compassion, introducing them to sanctity.

It is important to be aware of Noah’s promptly “planting a vine” and “drinking the wine” soon after the flood ended, bringing him pain, and ensure that we avoid the intoxication and missteps that can also follow the giddy relief of returning to (even the new) normal.

It is perhaps better to embrace the Abrahamic path, seeking the way to be more open and honest and kind and faithful, and help bring the world closer to an undisputed G-dly awareness and greatness like Abraham did (which Noah, despite his noted piety, sadly did not).

We will thus persevere until the day soon comes when we see the ultimate fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham by his and our creator, and get to that ultimate “normal” we have prayed for over the course of painful millennia, with the world redeemed and sorrow forever gone.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov is the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) in Washington, D.C. His upcoming book, “Capital Sparks,” is scheduled for release in the spring of 2021.

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