By Rabbi Eric Yanoff
What day is it again? Where am I? Where should I be?
Time in quarantine can be a bit disorienting, wouldn’t you agree? Days seem both to drag on, and also we lose track of time and don’t get accomplished what we thought we could. It has been a bewildering few months without the guideposts and schedules that would normally punctuate our time.
Yes, we might chuckle at this phenomenon of time-slippage, but the fact is, for many people, this inability to mark time has truly detrimental effects. Many people report sleeping less or fitfully, our circadian rhythms interrupted. The effects on our physical and mental health are real, and people are suffering.
This frenetic, unstructured existence is mirrored by an observation of the list of names of the Torah portions that have stretched back over the past month. Granted, they are just abbreviated mentions of the first words of each parshah, but when read in series, the effect is dizzying and disorienting: Ki Tetze (when you go out), Ki Tavo (when you come in), Nitzavim (standing), Vayelech (going forth) and now Ha’azinu (give ear).
Week after week, this past month, we’ve been going, coming, standing still and going forth again! It is a challenge that mirrors our current directionless, wandering existence.
It begins so enticingly, for quarantine: Ki Tetze — when we fully venture out, safely, beyond our quarantine, when it is safe to do so, for ourselves, and for the society around us — what will we find? Will we find hugs? Handshakes? Visible smiles? In what new ways will we express friendship, kinship, intimacy?
What of our pre-coronavirus world will remain, and what will have fallen prey to economic ruin? When will we dance a hora once again or fall weeping on one another’s shoulders in the wake of loss?
Next, Ki Tavo — when we come, when we arrive at some new, post-closure reality, will everyone arrive together? Will others continue to rely on technology, on societal supports, on deliveries instead of in-person shopping? Will a day at the office be the same? Will those who work with their hands, to create and make and heal in the physical sense, feel safe? A business trip? Travel in general? What will we deem necessary, and what will be a frivolous risk, or just an inconvenience?
Nitzavim — what will still be standing? What will sustain, rooted and weathering this storm? Will education — for our youngest preschoolers or our college-bound future-builders — ever be the same? Sports, music, culture — will it be intimately, communally experienced or virtually accessed?
Vayelech — when we go out, we will be venturing into a new world, just as we have ventured and innovated and explored and navigated every day since this all began. I do not aspire to “turn back the clock” to how things were. I hope that we gently but boldly push forward, using the learnings and warnings of our shared experience over this difficult time, to chart a path that is informed by what we’ve experienced, to better prepare us and strengthen us for the challenges ahead.
Because after the past four weeks of our Torah portions — going, coming, standing, and venturing — the next parshah in the series, this week’s penultimate portion of the Torah, is Ha’azinu — to give heed, to pay attention to all we’ve encountered, to learn, to sensitize ourselves.
The name of this Torah portion, the last one read on a Shabbat before we conclude the story of the Torah, comes from the Hebrew word ozen, or ear. The ear is the organ of balance, of equilibrium, of reorientation, of attunement to what we’ve learned, so that we might recalibrate ourselves for the next, renewed, recreated chapter of our journey.
As we recalibrate, we may feel like starting the Torah all over again, but we will have learned much from the disorienting, jarring, jostling journey we’ve endured.
The cadence and rhythm of the Jewish holidays that come in this season may also provide us with an anchor, a rootedness, a North Star point of reference, by which we might find meaning, reassurance and direction in a world that may seem as though it is spinning off its axis.
And now that we have begun 5781, I pray that from Ki Tetze — when the time comes, when it is time to cautiously, prudently go forth, into the unknown, we learn from this time of chaos and imbalance, and we arrive safely at Ha’azinu — a mindfulness, a purposeful, re-equilibration — so that we might create an ever stronger, ever more perfect world in the New Year.
Rabbi Eric Yanoff is one of the rabbis at Adath Israel in Merion Station and is co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.