20 March 2020
By Rabbi Alexandra Wright, The Liberal Jewish Synagogue
As I write, an eerie silence has fallen on the capital. I hear nothing. No cars, no trains, no voices; not even the sound of a midnight bird warbling his song of love to a mate. I try to keep calm, here at my computer, to restrain from turning away, every few minutes, from a piece of work to look at the news.
The increase in numbers of those who have contracted the COVID-19 virus in London, in Italy, the fact that the virus has now infiltrated nursing homes in Spain where the most vulnerable are dying on a daily basis; the collapse of the pound against the dollar; the closure of schools in Scotland and Wales, and now in England; the anxieties of those running businesses or on zero contract hours, the endless stream of news that changes every hour, every minute of the day. There is really no sound, no wind in the trees, no rain; no night animal scratching in the earth.
Is it possible that we have, at last, simply stopped, have come to rest in some timeless zone that has no known boundaries and no end? All our frenetic movement, all drivenness and blind ambition, all striving for – I don’t know what – all this now ceases and this life of ours, the hurdles that we tell ourselves we must leap over from childhood into adolescence, from young adulthood into middle age and beyond, fall away without the imminence of deadlines.
If only this fear and rising panic would abate, then I can breathe again. But it is hard; hard to accept that the fragile structures of our lives, the delicate balance we create of our many and varied activities and commitments – family and work, study and entertainment, volunteering, seeing friends, travelling and all the things that that take us out about and fill our lives and give us a structure of timeliness – may have to cease for some indefinite period of time. For these are the things that give our lives meaning and hope.
Today I spoke to one of our younger members living away from home in a distant university city. He was recovering from the virus which had ravaged him over a period of four days, confined him to his room, made him completely dependent on his housemates (not always reliable) and made him question his own sanity as he waited for the week of self-containment to come to an end. And not only did he feel dislocated by the experience of being so unwell, around him he was aware that his university was closing down, classes had ceased and all the work and preparation for his exams were on hold – indefinitely.
What are we experiencing? Is it something unreal that has transported us into another dimension, like a dream or nightmare? Tomorrow we will wake up and all we be as before – the streets choked with traffic, the tube surging with human beings, the stock market exploding and disintegrating with the fast-changing events of our lives? Or are we on some journey of grief – the numbness of shock that protects us from the deeper significance of what is happening around us? The fear of what lies ahead – a stricken desperation that we might lose our own lives or the lives of loved ones? I wonder if what we really feel, deep down, is a kind of relief that this silence and stillness has at last come? That this beautiful world is finally at peace, because of this frightening, unpredictable rupture to human beings’ daily life.
I think of the opening lines of the poem by the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:
I, may I rest in peace — I, who am still living, say,
May I have peace in the rest of my life.
I want peace right now while I’m still alive.
Is it too terrible to say that the coronavirus has given us – in the midst of our fear and panic, in the midst of the unknown – a single moment of peace? Let us breathe in the air for a moment, stand outside if we can and listen to the silence. The birds will tell us what we need to know for the immediate future, the return of a bee to the garden, the deep purple buds of the magnolia that have broken through their green encasements and are now ready to burst into flower. As we connect with our world and its magnificent and quiet beauty, let us try and quell the panic in our hearts and find the space to reach out to each other, to bring this peace into the promise of what Isaiah called ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’
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