When the pandemic began, I was shocked and disoriented at how abruptly our lives were shuttered. Restaurants, theaters, “non-essential” stores and businesses of every variety were suddenly closed. In short order, satellite images showed how the planet’s measurable heat, light and pollution plummeted in an instant when the tumult and consumption of human life were halted. Videos showed up on YouTube – filmed by drone rather than live operators on site – of cities the world over that had become ghost towns. These were eerie and heartbreaking, dystopian, even.
One could imagine a person gone mad, running screaming down empty streets. Would people who were sheltering indoors (that is, would we) silently peer out from behind our curtains at the oddity of an actual human being out in the open? Trips to the grocery store, or Target runs, felt at once transgressive and redemptive.
My young daughters, then happy learners at their pre-school, were suddenly home during the day, indefinitely. Our Polish au pair, facing an intolerable diminishment in her life in Milwaukee and open-ended separation from her family, wisely boarded the first flight home. I was able to hire new babysitters, but their tenure tended to be short. Like so many of us, I felt trapped and terribly, terribly frustrated.
Throughout the pandemic many have observed that time has lost its structure. By spending so much time at home, by collapsing the distinguishing markers of home space and workspace, weekday time and weekend time, as well as weekday time and holy time, the pandemic has sometimes seemed to give all time a common gray pallor.
Meanwhile, with this disruption and disorientation, this halting of bodies in motion, this vast muffling of the lively noise of living, the sun still came up every morning. The moon still cast its magical glow at night. The Milwaukee River still flowed along its course, rippling past small boulders, and tumbling over its little fall in Kletzsch Park. And Lake Michigan continued to hold Wisconsin in its long (and sometimes moody) embrace, offering up its subtle blues and long horizon for our comfort. Spring flowers blossomed on time, the trees leafed up for summer, and the wildlife in all its variety went about the urgent business of the warm months.
Nature’s imperviousness to the coronavirus – its fealty to the order of the seasons – has been my most important corrective to the pandemic’s pervasive and suffocating sameness. Milwaukee’s easy access to green (and blue) space in every direction has meant that I could find recreation for my girls and me even when the playgrounds were off limits. As my daughters walked along a fallen tree trunk several feet off the ground and found their footing and their confidence, I knew that this, too, was school, even if their beloved classroom was closed.
But no less importantly, visits to parks, trails, forests, lakes, and campgrounds have reminded me that beyond human civilization, the natural world rolls inevitably along, indifferent to all that we fill our lives with. The huge turtle we encountered on a path along the Milwaukee River hadn’t heard about the virus. Certainly, it wasn’t concerned about it. In the words of the Talmud, Olam k’minhago nohaig – the world holds to its routines. And nature is majestic, dynamic, and strong even as some of our human structures have emerged as hollow, mundane, and flimsy. Being out in nature has helped set the devastating effects of the virus in perspective. Human civilization isn’t the whole story. It isn’t our only source of meaning, our only field for achievement, our only security. Being out in nature during the pandemic has been a great comfort precisely because its fullness is independent of feeling safe at a restaurant table. The Torah teaches again and again that recognizing the ways in which we are not in control is the basis of our wisdom and our opening to God, and that giving attention to the works of God’s hands is the basis of our own enlightenment. During these long months of pandemic, I have striven to heed this instruction.
I know that for many, especially the elderly and those with chronic illness, to say nothing of those in a financially precarious state, the great outdoors has been and remains an inaccessible luxury. And as I write, a long, cold winter stretches out ahead of us, even with the emergence of vaccines. The pandemic’s challenges remain, including the pressing need to help everyone safely break through its strictures as well as they might. I’ve offered here a personal reflection that gives me strength.
Finally, I cannot conclude without mentioning my gratitude for, and inspiration from, the steady presence of daveners at my synagogue’s twice daily minyanim, the heroics of my congregation’s Chesed Committee, and the cycle of instruction and imagination in the weekly Torah portions – a cycle no less stable than the turning of the seasons themselves.
I look forward to stepping out into a day before too long when the sun will rise brightly on a world no longer hiding in the shadow of the coronavirus.
Rabbi Joel Alter is the spiritual leader for Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid in Glendale.