Gam Zeh Yaavor. According to the Jewish folktale, this was the inscription inside Solomon’s “magical” ring, which if a happy person looked upon, made her sad, but if a sad person looked upon, made him happy. In reality the ring had no magic, only wisdom, reminding Solomon, and us, that all things and events are transient.
Gam Zeh Yaavor. “This too shall pass.” The question of this moment is not “if,” and we simply cannot answer the question of “when?” The compelling question is how shall we respond during the passing days, weeks and months? Recognizing that even though we know that we will traverse this crisis (gam zeh yaavor) doesn’t mean that we should ignore how we get there.
If anything, history, and especially Jewish history, is a guide to what we should try to avoid during a time of pandemic. If so-called “social distancing” (a poor term given that there is nothing “social” about distancing ourselves from one another) requires our physical separation from one another, then our every effort must be to work at social contact and interconnection.
For some of us that is easier because we have a significant circle of family and/or friends. But for others in our community, social distancing risks social isolation. We who constitute the synagogue community are dedicated to making sure no one passes through this period in such isolation.
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav taught that at times “the entire world can seem like a narrow bridge.” Our choices are constricted and we feel we are hanging over a precipice. At such a moment, he taught, “the most important thing is not to give in to our fear.”
“Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be frightened, for I am your God” (Isaiah 41:10).
“Do not be afraid, Jacob my servant; do not be dismayed, Israel.” (Jeremiah 46:27)
The phrase, “Al tira—Do not fear,” is repeated so often in Hebrew Scriptures that Maimonides claims that “Al tira” is one of the 365 negative commandments of the Torah (Sefer HaMitzvot, Lo Taaseh 58; and in the Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 7:15).
Fear is a normative emotional response. Scripture certainly isn’t expecting us to simply turn this emotion off. But what we do with our fear IS a matter of choice. There is a Divine force that will strengthen and encourage us if we choose not to give in to our fear. Fear can be immobilizing. Fear can lead us to shut down, to turn away the efforts of those who are reaching out to us. And in an environment such as ours, the daily changes in information and reportage, recommendations and policies can lead us to stop listening or to stick to failed approaches.
Yet, paired with our faith in “decisive action” and our desire “to do something,” fear sometimes leads us to act precipitously rather than calming ourselves and awaiting greater insight and understanding. And fear can also be seductive. It leads some to find “answers” and “explanations” by seeking to blame someone, some group. Fear too often is used as a permission by some to vent their fears, sometimes violently, at others. We Jews are all too familiar with this tendency in human history. Gaining control (if not full mastery) over our fear is what we all seek, and we do that best together, not separately; communally, not individually. Social isolation, isolation from human faces and words, isolation from the attention and concern of others will surely injure each of us even if the virus does not.
If we must keep our physical distance, then we must also bridge the divide that separates us in every other way. As Solomon taught in the Book of Proverbs: “Worry in a person’s heart will bring one low, but a choice word will lift one up.” We can’t offer ourselves that choice word—only another person has that power.
Each of us is equipped with the means of uplifting the others around us. The visage of a smiling face happy to see another, the comfort of a familiar voice, the sincere inquiry into the well-being of another, the genuine offer to assist. These are the tools we have been blessed with to lighten the burden and help make this time pass.
Gam zeh yaavor!
Keyn y’hi ratzon.
Rabbi Serge A. Lippe was ordained at HUC-JIR in 1991 and has served as the spiritual leader of the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue for the last 23 years. He is the editor of Birkon Artzi: Blessings and Meditations for Travelers to Israel, published by CCAR Press.