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Living Against Instinct

January 10, 2021 | by Emuna Braverman

The pandemic has forced us to scrutinize every behavior.

Among the many challenges of our current situation is that we so frequently have to operate against instinct. Where we would normally hug someone, we have to stand far back. Where we would normally leave the house or enter a store face uncovered, we have to remember our masks. Where we would normally agree to meet a friend at a restaurant, we have to remind ourselves that they are closed or that, if open, my husband and I actually don’t feel comfortable eating in them.

If we’re serving food to anyone outside the family – even outdoors and socially distant, it frequently has to be packaged. We can’t get too close to anyone, even though their masks block our ability to hear a word they are saying. If we travel, we can’t get to know the locals or even our fellow travelers. We have to constantly curtail our instincts for friendliness, for intimacy, for interpersonal touch, for socializing…you name it.

And it’s frustrating. Big time.

But I realized today (a little slow on the uptake) that I could learn something from it as well. Because an essential aspect of living a Jewish life is not to react just by instinct but rather very thoughtfully and consciously.

In “normal” times, this attitude is out of step in our fast-paced world. Thinking before you speak deadens a conversation. You run the risk of making yourself a social pariah. Even more so if you abstain from gossiping about others. Thinking before you act labels you a party pooper. Everyone else is participating in this fun activity; why not you? Thinking before you make any choice, being very deliberate about your words and behaviors is the Torah-prescribed way to be. But it seems unsuited to modern society.

The Coronavirus has forced all this change. Every behavior now has to be scrutinized. Should I go there? Should I do that? Should I take a socially distant walk with her if she is just recovering from COVID-19? Should I send my kids to school and take the medical risks or keep them home with the accompanying emotional and psychological challenges? Should I order take-out to support that restaurant or only trust my own kitchen? Who should I let into my protected circle and who do I need to keep on the outside? What to do about my aging, isolated grandparents?

And our words also require greater thought. When we can’t rely on touch, our words mean so much more. We have to convey not just thoughts but feelings. In addition, this is being done either through a mask or over zoom with limited affect. Each word has to be carefully parsed and planned.

Although some of this may seem unnatural I think this is ultimately for our good. And although I, along with the whole world, hope and pray that we are able to return to “normal” times soon, I’d like to hope that we don’t return to that quicker pace too soon. I’d like to hope that we slow things down just a little, that we have learned to appreciate the power of deliberation, of careful thought and contemplation before we think and act.

There have been so many negative consequences to this virus. Perhaps there could be some positive ones as well.


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