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Mourning the Old Normal

July 23, 2020 | by Sara Yoheved Rigler

Take time to mourn the life we used to have.

I walk the narrow lanes of my neighborhood in the walled Old City of Jerusalem like I am moving through the Prophet Jeremiah’s lament: “How she sits in solitude, the city that was full of people” (Lamentations 1:1)! Just five months ago, the lanes of the Old City were so crowded with tour groups from Asia, Europe, and Africa that it was hard to maneuver my way through them. Now the streets are empty; even the residents have little cause to venture out.

The men who used to fill the yeshivahs now learn Torah by Zoom from their apartments. Mothers stay home with their children. The students from around the world who converged on Jerusalem are exiled to their native countries, the gates of Israel sealed to non-citizens. The souvenir shops and the restaurants are closed and dark. The popular humus restaurant, opened just a year ago, has a FOR SALE sign on the glass door. The owner of the boutique hotel around the corner from me is also trying to sell. I know these men – fathers of families now hundreds of thousands of shekels in debt.

“The byways of Zion are in mourning for lack of the festival pilgrims,” lamented Jeremiah. “All her gates are desolate.”

Once, God was revealed among us; now He is hidden, obscured, concealed.

This is the time of year for mourning. Known as the “Nine Days” between the first day of the Hebrew month of Av and the fast day of Tisha B’Av, we eat no meat, drink no wine, do not go swimming or buy new clothes. We are in mourning for the Holy Temple which was destroyed on the ninth of Av. We once had the tangible presence of God in our midst, attested to by miracles that everyone who entered the Temple could see. With the destruction of the Temple, we mourn the departure of the Divine Presence. Once, God was revealed among us; now He is hidden, obscured, concealed. We have much to mourn.

Judaism is fastidious about mourning. When a parent, sibling, spouse, or child dies, we sit shiva for seven days. During that time, we permit ourselves no distractions, refrain from all work, stay in the house, wear no shoes, do not change our clothes, sit on low stools, and give ourselves over to the arduous process of grieving for the loved one we have lost, in the presence of those who come to comfort us. My friend Beth told me how she sat shiva for her mother for seven days, but her father died two days before Passover, so the shiva was cut short by the holiday. She felt the difference. The lack of a full week to grieve – and to be comforted by visitors – left her feeling unresolved and incomplete.

Grief counsellors assert the importance of the mourning process. Unprocessed grief can lead to later physical and psychological problems. The sages knew what they were doing when they taught us how to mourn.

Mourning the Life We Knew

There is much talk about the “new normal” that the Covid-19 pandemic has thrust upon us. Whether still caught in the first wave or besieged anew by the second wave as we are in Israel, our lives have dramatically changed from just a few months ago. Many of us have suffered from the coronavirus itself; some have lost family members and friends; some have lost jobs or businesses; senior citizens and singles are isolated in their homes; young mothers are cooped up with their children; and all of us suffer from the chaos of conflicting medical opinions and expert recommendations. Society has become a rudderless boat in a storm. As Rabbi Aron Moss of Sydney wrote at the onset of the pandemic: “It is not that we have lost our sense of certainty. We have lost our illusion of certainty.”

In my weekly webinar for married Jewish women, I asked each member to name her greatest loss/hardship from Covid-19. The responses included:

  • Not being able to fly to my sister’s wedding
  • Losing my job
  • Not being able to visit my elderly parents in a different city
  • An irritable husband because his business has collapsed
  • My daughter not having a proper graduation from college
  • The stress of having husband and children home all the time

One webinar member said that she got married a couple of months ago, with few of her family and none of her friends at her wedding.

These are real losses. We must take time to mourn them. This requires allotting ourselves a block of time alone. We should write down all the things we have lost or miss due to the pandemic. (You can share some of your list in the comments section below.)

Here are some items from my list:

  • Not having my grandchildren come for the Pesach Seder
  • Not having Shabbos guests, including my married daughter and her family
  • The French bakery and all the other stores in my neighborhood that are out of business due to the lack of tourist traffic
  • No all-night learning with hundreds of women on Shavuot night
  • Miss hugging my children and grandchildren
  • Community functions and celebrations
  • Going out to dinner with my husband

Now, with your own list in hand, sit, close your eyes, and mourn for what you loved and have lost. Allow yourself time to feel the pain of the loss. Cry if you want to.

When you have fully acknowledged and experienced your losses, with your eyes still closed, move on to the next step: Be grateful for the life you do have. You can’t be with your loved ones, but you can see them on Zoom or FaceTime. You’re cooped up with your spouse; be grateful you have a spouse. You lost your job, but you still have the health and the mental capacity to seek a new job. Let gratitude color the new normal.

Then take a few deep breaths and open your eyes. Now you’re ready to emerge on the other side and move forward.

Avoid the 3 D’S

Judaism introduced into the world the concept of teleological time – that history moves forward toward a goal, specifically the Messianic Era. All other ancient cultures saw history as cyclical, an endless circle leading nowhere. Because Jews believe in a Divine Director, history has a direction, and a purpose: to teach us to transform ourselves and our societies into agents of justice, compassion, and holiness in order to bring the Final Redemption.

The Hebrew Prophets prophesized both catastrophes and redemption. They foresaw that the Holy Temple would be destroyed and the Jewish people exiled from their land. They also described the joyous return to the land of Israel when “old men and old women will once again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, … and the squares of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing” (Zecharia 8:4-5). In the Jewish worldview, all catastrophes lead ultimately to redemption.

The global catastrophe of the Covid-19 pandemic is also part of the redemption process. We are suffering, “the birth pangs of the Messiah.” As every woman who has given birth can attest, labor is painful, but purposeful pain is bearable. We must know that we are treading a rocky road leading to a worthwhile destination.

As we navigate this road, it is imperative to avoid the 3 D’s: denial, depression, and disconnection.

Denial: Many people are just waiting to return to life as it used to be. They believe that once a vaccine is found, presto! The world will be back to pre-March, 2020. This is unlikely. The profound losses in the global economy will take years to recoup. Many companies that have gone out of business, such as restaurants and summer sleep-away camps, will not be resuscitated. Whole industries, such as the airline industry and the tourist industry, will take years to recover. And the government debt accrued by disbursements to citizens will be an albatross around the global neck for the next generation.

Even in the medical field, experts are predicting that the novel coronavirus will mutate, necessitating multiple vaccines. Reports are surfacing of reinfections – people who tested positive, then negative, and who had antibodies, now vulnerable to the virus again.

Denial of the gravity of our situation makes us less able to cope with the challenge – and to learn its lessons. When God chooses to send a pandemic, it is to teach us and humble us. To deny the severity of the plague is to lose the opportunity for spiritual awareness and growth.

Depression: Depression is very different than mourning. Depression is a pit we fall into; mourning is a tunnel we pass through, emerging at the other end. The Torah specifically prohibits the extreme mourning rites of other ancient cultures, such as pulling out hair and cutting one’s skin. One must mourn one’s losses, but not too much and not too long.

Depression is a pit we fall into; mourning is a tunnel we pass through, emerging at the other end.

Depression paralyzes us and blinds us to the Divine, who is directing our world with love at every moment. Monotheism asserts that God is the only operative force in the universe. Although human beings have free will in the moral sphere, only God decides what will be the ultimate outcome. Emunah, or faith in a loving God, is the antidote to depression. Again, to quote Rabbi Aron Moss: “Panic and fear are also contagious. Take every precaution as advised by health authorities. Wash your hands well. And every time you do, remember whose hands you are in.”

Disconnection: Many people have commented how sheltering at home with spouse and children has been a positive experience of bonding. For others, the constant contact has been irritating and divisive. Domestic abuse is on the rise. The choice is ours whether to use periods of quarantine to connect or to disconnect, both with family members and with God.

One of the key choices in life is to choose connection, and Covid-19 has given us unique opportunities to do that. Zoom offers us a way to connect to relatives and friends we haven’t seen in ages. Community initiatives to deliver food to the elderly is one of the best fruits of the pandemic. In Israel, a volunteer organization has sprung up that will shop for food and medications, even take out the garbage, for families in quarantine. Don’t let the stress of Covid-19 drive you to disconnect.

Once we pass through the dark tunnel of mourning our losses, and we avoid the 3 D’s, we will emerge into the new reality of a world humbled and chastened, and we will be energized to take on the challenges leading to the coming of Moshiach.

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