Commentary: Love in the time of coronavirus

Gabriel García Márquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” has been on my mind this past week. Set in South America (some say Colombia) near the turn of the 20th century, the novel concerns a series of fraught relationships between its protagonists, one of whom is a doctor who aims to eradicate the disease.

While cholera and the coronavirus are different pathogens, they both represent a cessation of all that is normal and expected. As someone recently said to me, referring to the generalized sense of fear and dislocation, “our lives right now are like we are in a wrinkle in time.”

Among Milwaukee’s Jews, there are current efforts to problem solve, innovate and sustain our precious community. In particular, synagogues have gone virtual, utilizing technology to create types of communities not reliant on proximity. Our rabbis consult each other frequently: what can we do to meet the needs of our communities and their members? How can we pray together? How can we continue to study Torah? Celebrate Simchas together? G-d forbid, mourn together?

What historical Jewish experience has taught us suggests we have the tools at our disposal to meet this challenge.

Two ideas, in particular, come to mind. The first is that love, itself, is contagious. So teaches Phoenix Rabbi Shmuley Yanklowitz:

“To give up on the better angels of our nature is akin to defeat. At the least, to acknowledge people’s good intentions and engage others out of love rather than fear are ways to help defeat the trials put before us by the coronavirus. Spread love, spread warmth, spread optimism. The times may seem bleak, but we can all do our part to ensure that a brighter tomorrow is around the corner.”

The second idea maintains we know something else from our collective Jewish experience: while we may not have control over the emergence of disease or the difficulties we face in life, we can control how we respond. Not on every occasion. Not without extreme effort. But the potential for changing our own perspective is ever-present.

Reb Nachman of Breslov, the grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, wrote: “All the world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is not to be afraid.”

If you or your children ever attended Jewish camp, you may recognize Nachman’s saying as a popular folk song.

It turns out, however, that is not exactly what Nachman first penned. He initially wrote, translating from the Hebrew: ״All the world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is to not make yourself afraid.”

Fear and anxiety are real and justifiable and making space to experience the full breadth of emotions that come along with this scary and unknown moment is an important part of the spiritual process. But we Jews have a long history of overcoming adversity. The Talmudic principle, kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba’zeh (all of Israel is responsible for one another) sets our agenda and alerts us to our responsibilities. As we establish social distance to staunch the virus’s spread, let’s not forget how connected we really are.

As each of us strives to meet this challenge, we take solace in Gabriel García Márquez’s reminder: “The heart’s memory eliminates the bad and magnifies the good, and that thanks to this artifice we manage to endure the burner of the past.”

And let’s remind ourselves that we each hold the key as to how we respond to adversity, no matter its form. And more: we also have the capacity to support each other, even at the very moment we ourselves feel afraid. Let’s embody the phrase we say when we finish the five books the Torah: hazak hazak v’nithazek – strength, strength, may we strengthen each other.