What follows is an outline of some thoughts I shared this weekend at the Finchley Reform Synagogue Zoom-mediated Shabbat morning service. They are followed by some other thoughts I chose not to talk about in that context… “There’s a time for all things” (Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors, 2:2).
How are you making sense of what we are living through each day, each week, since our world was turned upside down?
Although some people have a lot more time on their hands, I’m not sure that there’s much mental space available to ‘make sense’ of what we are going through. It’s more about survival: we seem to focused on our physical well-being, our emotional well-being, our mental well-being, and making sure we have shopping, making sure (as best we can) that we are keeping safe, checking that our loved ones are safe; and of course managing the daily impact of losses and deaths – those close to us, and those we hear about here in the UK, or in other countries around the world.
I sense that most of us are taking it one day at a time. We are getting through each day as best we can, and if possible appreciating – really appreciating – the small things: trees in blossom, birdsong, our gardens (if we are fortunate enough to have gardens). Suddenly these small things seem extraordinary, almost like miracles.
And maybe we realise they aren’t ‘small’ things at all, but things we might in other times rather take for granted. But this year, in the year of our confinement and our fearfulness, as Spring arrives they become parts of our daily experience that we suddenly find ourselves really grateful for: nature, in all its glory, and air we can breathe, air unpolluted by civilisation’s toxic fumes.
And of course the other thing we re-discover, renew an appreciation of, is our connections to other people. Yes, this is mediated by technology – those virtual connections that Professor Shoshana Zuboff in ‘The Age of Surveillance Capitalism’ called our “glass life”, a new way of living – but those screen connections with others have suddenly become really precious: friends, family, community.
And so, from what I can see around me, we are bound up with survival: it’s one day at a time.
But none of that, to my mind at least, is ‘making sense’ of what is happening – all of that is coping, it’s strategies for surviving in unprecedented times, it’s the ways we are managing to adapt to the restrictions on our normal freedoms.
The Jewish community is in the middle of the festival of Pesach/Passover, with its great archetypal theme of the movement from slavery to freedom, and there are ways in which it is carrying an added dimension of meaning this year and, for some, an extra relevance which the festival has never had before.
Suddenly, confined to our homes for we don’t know how long, did we glimpse, not slavery exactly – because those in true captivity don’t have internet access and supermarket deliveries – but are we getting this Pesach a glimpse of what a very restricted life is like, a real lack of freedom? And as we spoke about freedom on seder night, did we not also allow our minds to turn to liberation, when we might have more of our life back again? That journey from restrictions and bondage to freedom is one we are still living through, waiting for, hoping for.
But who will set us free? There’s no divine power to do that – just a muddling-through government. And right now we are still in the middle of our modern plague. Actually, would that it were the middle: we sense we might still be in the foothills of this hard slog ahead, and each of us wonders – out loud, or in the secret places of our souls, or in panic in the dead of night – we wonder if we will live to see our exodus, our crossing the Reed Sea, the miracle of our getting through something that threatens to overwhelm us, crash down on top of us and sweep us or our loved ones away.
But all of this you know. I am just describing where we are – none of it is ‘making sense’ of what is happening to us, to our nation, to our global civilisation. Because we are still too close to it, we are in it, there is no place from which we can look clearly or objectively at it. Yet if we sense anything, it is that life will not be the same again : when we crash onto the far shore of this perilous journey, our world will look different. But what it will look like we can’t say.
One thing maybe we can say is that it will be a world with many losses to mourn, or come to terms with. It will be a time of bereavement. The heartache of personal losses of course, but collective losses as well. The landscape will look different: many businesses we know, small and large, will have gone, charities will have gone, football clubs will have gone, the Jewish Chronicle (publishing since 1841) has already gone, savings will have gone, security will have gone, jobs and livelihoods will have gone.
I don’t like the language of war to describe this situation we are in – ‘war with an invisible enemy’ is the most common cliché – but one way in which this unprecedented situation is like a war is that it involves deaths: real deaths, and symbolic deaths. As well as celebrating our liberation from the plague, we will have to mourn our losses. But that stage, the stage after our liberation, the stage after we tumble out on the far shore of the Reed Sea, joyful and dazed as well as bereaved – that will be the time when we might begin to really ‘make sense’ of what we have experienced.
I was helped this week to realise it wasn’t just me struggling to make sense of things when I read a short piece written by the Irish novelist Anne Enright, who talked about how she was experiencing these plague times having returned to her home in Dublin. And what particularly captured my attention, and sort of reassured me, was where she describes having been temporarily stranded in America by Trump’s sudden ban on international travel, and then she comments: “I deal in words for a living, but I have had difficulty in forming them, since that moment, whether to describe or analyse. I don’t really understand them [words] anymore. I understand touch, breath, contact…I understand the word ‘home’”.
Well, I also deal in words for a living (after a fashion) – so it helped me, as I struggle to make sense of where we are, and to put things into words that aren’t just clichés, it helped to hear a novelist and thinker like Anne Enright describe her inability to ‘describe or analyse’. So it’s not just me, I thought.
The time for understanding, analysing, will come later, we hope: it will arrive in time, in due course, because beyond the crossing over the Sea of Reeds, beyond that initial period of journeying into the wilderness, after the beginnings of that long journey towards a far-off and impossible-to-believe-in ‘promised land’, the Torah goes on to tell of a space in the desert, Sinai, where meaning was really given, new understanding was created: a new vision, a new revelation, about how people were to live, a new caring and compassionate and justice-filled way forward for the Israelite community, and through them for the world.
Our ancient story, that supreme fiction that we have made sacred, contains the story of our lives too. We will get through this, even if we are only near the beginning of things: we will get to a place where we can begin to make sense of what has happened, when we can see things more clearly, when we can begin to chart a new way through, Away-from-Here, to construct a better way of living and being. That will be the time for words and vision. Meanwhile we just have each other, without touch, without physical contact, we still have each other as a community to hold us as we plot our way through, day by day.
And what did I not talk about?
I didn’t talk about the scandal of the lack of equipment that NHS workers are experiencing every day – doctors, nurses, social care staff, clinicians, cleaners, who are continuing to work without adequate gowns, facemasks, aprons, visors.
I didn’t talk about the scandal of the years of underfunding of our National Health Service that has meant the service is woefully short of ventilators and intensive care hospital beds.
I didn’t talk about the scandal of the lack of forward-thinking government planning after the SARS and MERS and Ebola and Zika viruses had each caused thousands of deaths – as if this country was somehow immune to the possibility of another and more deadly mutating virus. Better to spend £40 billion pounds on Trident nuclear submarines to defend the country against last century’s enemy.
I didn’t talk about the scandal of the 3.5 million antibody tests that the government has bought, supposedly to help establish who has acquired immunity to the CV virus, that fail to meet minimum standards of accuracy and so are useless, despite having been promoted by the Prime Minister as a ‘game-changer’.
I didn’t talk about the scandal of a political philosophy in this country that has the ability to martial its organisational and financial resources if the political will is there: to find hotels for the homeless, to find money for those who have lost a job, to build a 4,000-bed hospital in 10 days (we were in awe when the Chinese did it, but knew – we thought we knew – that it would be impossible here. But the so-called ‘impossible’ becomes possible when political minds are focused on what is truly essential).
I didn’t talk about the irony, the suddenly grown-up seriousness, of the government’s new respect for facts, for truth, for expertise, for scientific evidence – even though one of the issues this crisis has revealed is that there are widely divergent ways of interpreting scientific information, and that such interpretations, and the courses of action that flow from different interpretations, are literally a matter of life and death.
And I didn’t talk about the scandal in the Biblical narrative that the generation that did experience ‘exodus’, that did stumble onto dry land on the other side of the Sea of Reeds in that great mythic drama of our people, that whole generation of survivors of slavery who saw the devastations brought upon Egypt by plagues, they who tasted both liberation and the revelation of a new way of living – they all died out on the journey to the promised land.
Our saga narrates that from the Exodus generation who knew slavery, only Joshua and Caleb had enough hope for the future, and faith in divine help, to merit going forward into the ‘promised land’. I didn’t talk – on this occasion – about how the Torah’s text is a dark and scandalous reminder that in our lives too, wished-for ‘promised lands’ so often remain beyond the horizon.