In previous years, while reading the passages from the Haggadah at the Pesach seder, it may have required imagination to picture how, through an unforeseeable onslaught of natural forces, the mighty Egyptian nation was brought to its knees. And how, so many people — Egyptians and Jews alike — formerly steeped in materialism were awestruck as they were compelled to recognize the higher force active behind every harsh movement of nature, exclaiming to their leader:” “This the finger of God” (Exodus 8:15).
But this picture (of the world drastically changing in an instant) is no longer only an ancient story. Today, we may have neither a visible Moshe, directly delivering God’s messages, or the flashy miracles abounding. But we can detect some type of global awakening from exile.
When it comes to interpreting and explaining the spiritual meaning behind the recent crisis, there are no clear answers. For any person with faith to declare that this is all God’s work, or that there is a deeper purpose, is just a restatement of the most basic tenet in the Torah.
Religious teachers and leaders must always exercise care when identifying causes or reasons why the human family is suffering. Even to boldly suggest what lessons we can learn from this challenging situation may be presumptuous. Someone who claims to know the specific purpose — beyond spurring a shift in mindset, or to prepare the world for a new era — is likely speaking above their level of insight.
With that said, here are six simple spiritual ingredients, from a Jewish perspective, to ease the burden. To make it easy to remember, we can use the mnemonic “SCRIPT.”
Six Intertwined Ingredients:
S – Simcha (happiness)
It is hard to feel happy during a time of pervading anguish and uncertainty. And if someone’s happiness stems from being sheltered — an inability to sympathize with the suffering of others — it can certainly be a deficiency instead of a virtue. From another angle, now is precisely the time to focus on developing a truer inner joy — especially to support those in our circle.
The Talmud relates that “joy breaks boundaries.” Jewish mystical works further explain that “happiness sweetens negative decrees.” A central kabbalistic principle teaches that every occurrence in this world (“below”) is tied to and flows from a spiritual source (“above.”) Our joy below generates a joy above, and that heavenly joy in turn results in a downpour of blessings.
Perhaps the hardest yet highest of all qualities — the indication of our conscious connection to God — is called bitachon: an underlying sense of trust and security even under difficult circumstances. The manifestation of this trust is the ability to stay calm.
Having poise under pressure (not panicking) is, in general, beneficial — for sound judgment, health, clear thinking and productive action. Superficial calmness is often created from the sense of being in control. But during these times, those individuals with a strong need to control every aspect of their lives and business, are experiencing heightened nervousness and discomfort.
Being mindful of what we can and cannot change — that much of what happens is in God’s hands — is the first step to cultivating inner trust. We can then relinquish our tendency to constantly seek control and invite a dose of calmness to enter.
R- Reaching out
Even when we feel calm and secure, we now face a unique ethical test, an inner tension wherein we must constantly decide between mentally focusing on our own well-being — the voice of self-preservation — and concentrating on the needs of another.
People accustomed to living private self-oriented lives may not find the isolation as rough. But for those individuals (or communities) who enjoy having guests and who thrive on warm interactions with people, this period presents a big challenge.
Nevertheless, although people are physically distant, we can remain socially, emotionally and spiritually connected. Reaching out to a neighbor, friend or someone you haven’t seen for a while can make a difference. Likewise, reflecting on your life journey — perhaps making a list of those people who played a significant role — then steadily checking in with them. Most importantly, call or text someone who you think might need encouragement.
Since we are forced to stay home, it would be a waste not to learn meaningful lessons. What does our family unit look like now? What are we gaining from time with one another? What are we learning about ourselves, our spouse, or our children during the time that perhaps we previously missed or overlooked?
People are pointing to this quality time with family to send inspirational videos, trying to find the silver lining in this situation. But there is no escaping that are not good times. And during dark periods, where our people are suffering and dying, one must look inward, review one’s deeds, and cry out to God (which is called teshuva.)
Until recently, we may have been curious about what lies beyond the here and now, casually searching for answers during our spare time, or making the effort to connect because we wanted to. And aside from personal traumas or tragedies, it was always possible to cover up faith with pleasure and distractions.
But now the fragility of physical life is in our faces every day. The character of every individual is being tested. We must think: What are you doing in this world? And we must make radical personal changes, pushing ourselves to do more positive things that we have never done.
And this leads to the next idea.
Prayer is not simply requesting what we lack or trying to change God’s mind — it is primarily about inner change. Change takes place through connection and everyone connects to God in their unique way. There are also many forms of Jewish prayer, whether the morning service, reciting a Psalm, the Shema, prayer at the moment of lighting candles Friday evening, prayer while putting on tefillin, or just talking to God about your deepest concerns or struggles — that’s prayer too!
Meditation is not prayer. Meditation is more about calming the mind and body to receive insight. Prayer entails giving your breath, trying to reach God and, through speech, to effect change — both internally (“the miniature world,”) and in the environment (“the macro-world”). More specifically, by changing our own mindset and nature through proper introspection, we provoke a transformation in the nature of the world.
Never underestimate the power of an individual prayer. Just as one reckless negative action has caused a ripple effect across the globe, one positive deed can do the same. Prayer should no longer be rote. When you light the Shabbat (or Yom Tov) candles, there is an extra layer of illumination that goes out to the world. You are kindling the flame of life, the fire of souls and evoking mercy.
When we are conscious of our blessings, we feel gratitude. In Jewish life, practicing gratitude begins from the moment we wake up each morning (with the Modeh Ani prayer on our lips), thanking God for once again restoring our soul and giving us a chance to live another day. Appreciating the details — every bite of food, a beautiful landscape, a glowing smile from a loved one — stimulates this emotion, which also helps generate a calmer sprit and to spark joy.
So, when feeling down or overwhelmed, remember to follow the “SCRIPT” and let’s aim to emerge from this period as a better, more complete version of ourselves.
The themes of Pesach are faith, freedom, miracles and healing. A miracle, in general, consists of some alteration within the natural operation. It also provides extra power to create another type of miracle — to transform our personal “nature.”
Our nature entails our innate unrefined character, or the way we have been conditioned to behave over the years. An inner miracle in this context is when we activate a deeper layer of the soul with the power to override our ordinary way of being.
During Pesach we are given an external boost (from “above to below”) toward personal freedom and healing. May we look back one day and say that this period was the wake-up call and fuel that led to a broader perspective and new heights, all in good health.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.