Counting the Days of Omer and Covid-19

More than a month ago, a friend asked if I am journaling every day. She thought it would “really be something” to capture this unprecedented time and then look back at my words a year from now. She is certainly right. But it seems I cannot write; after five and a half weeks of stay-at-home, I have two entries, each no more than a paragraph, sentences drifting off in the middle.

I have planned to write this post for weeks now. Every day I write little pieces of it in my mind, but then, before I even begin, I decide that it has all been said already: The times are hard; look for the silver lining. We have great sorrow; still we try to be grateful. What else is there to say?
I realized today that what has actually kept me from writing is that I cannot comprehend the texture of this time. I simply cannot wrap my head around this time of languishment. (I remember feeling this way in college, reading Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain. If you also read it, you understand.)
We Jews are so good at understanding time as a container, a useful vessel for emotion, striving, and cataloguing: Shabbat, 10 Days of Awe, Three Weeks, 49 days of Omer.
Yet it is hard to understand what is happening in this particular time. If there is indeed a time for everything under heaven, I do not think it includes this pandemic. Do we think there is nothing new under the sun? We must think again. We have never before known COVID-19.
The days slip by. I think Sunday is Monday. I go to bed early or very late. I wake in the middle of the night worrying about small details, my sleepy brain unable to go to my real concerns. I breathe deeply and smile and model optimism. Just under the surface of each day, however, is an existentialist anxiety. Beyond questions of when will it end and how will we cope lies the theological impossibility: What does it mean? Here we are, full stride in the midst of it, and we have absolutely no idea what it all means. Hence, anxiety.
We are taught to face anxiety with a good dose of gratitude. Gratitude, I can do. I am grateful for many gifts: walking in my neighborhood in the spring time,

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practicing yoga virtually (I have finally been able to follow my own mantra: ‘Stay on my own mat’ – no one else to look at!), rediscovering the pleasures of my kitchen – inventing new recipes like carmelized pearl onions and cauliflower soup with red peppers. I made Sharon Rappaport‘s mother’s Passover popovers for the first time in years. (Thank you, Estelle, they are delicious!)
But I know that these months are not just an extended retreat from the world. No matter how content I might be during hours at home, no matter how I seek out reasons to be thankful, the entire world around me fills my heart and mind with sadness and concern.
I have completely good health. My kids are all safely at their homes, jobs intact, healthy and in good spirits. My in-laws are in their own homes, tucked away and safe.
But across my driveway, our beloved Millie is recovering from a fierce bout with the virus. She is a certified nurse aide at a geriatric center and had no choice but to go to work even when she didn’t feel completely well. No fever? Come to work. The Center is – like so many caregiving facilities – desperately short-staffed. Millie is an hourly worker who needs each paycheck. And she is a dedicated compassionate worker who now worries about the residents who are missing her special care and attention.

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Across the airwaves, I speak with our congregants who are ill, worried about their family members, or grieving losses. I receive notices from the three synagogues to which I belong as well as from the Rabbinical Assembly. I wring my hands thinking about Rabbi Scheff officiating at four funerals within a 24 hour span of time (and today in this monsoon). I speak to our congregants who describe literally and metaphorically standing on the other side of a pane of glass, trying to connect to their loved ones… trying to connect to their own grief. In the mourners, we sense a shock that goes well beyond the usual experience of bereavement. This precious OJC community will have work to do when this is over. The work of healing and rebuilding will require as much courage as this work of sustaining community in the crisis.
Covid-19 has stolen so much from us. Children have lost the ability to play with friends, teens have lost their clubs and sports, young adults have lost graduations, wedding dates, promises of summer jobs. Adults have lost health, jobs, the ability to care for our vulnerable family members, holiday gatherings, structure, and a sense of security. We simply do not know how to understand this passage of time.
And so we will count the Omer and remember the lessons of counting up: That every day is a gift. That we count up to appreciate and remember. That Judaism and community offer us structure when the world is chaotic.
This year, it looks like we’ll be counting toward Shavuot and just keep on counting. When will it end and how will we cope? I do not know, but I know that it will end and we will cope.
What does it mean? We will not ever know. But we can learn something about what it means each day as we count the Omer. We can say thank you to God for the goodness in our life. We can reach out each day to someone who is suffering emotionally, spiritually or physically from this plague. When there is no meaning, Judaism teaches us to make meaning.

Stay safe and healthy in mind, body and soul, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill

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6 responses to “Counting the Days of Omer and Covid-19”

  1. Lydia Katz says :

    I so needed this to validate that I am not the only one so confused. I do not seem to be able to keep track of the days of the week. (didn’t realize today is Monday and so missed chair yoga) I cannot equate this Pesach with my regular and so feel almost cheated. I hunger for companionship. Zoom has lost its thrill. There is little pleasure in cooking for one. I am sorry. I am not usually such a complainer but it has become very difficult. I got that off my chest and I will now try to focus on the future. L’hitraote Rabbi Drill. And when I do you will have to accept a hug.

  2. Carol Richmond says :

    Thank you for your beautifully written blog. It made me stop in my tracks & think, as you said, “what does it all mean?” As to journal writing, I just started mine today, inspired by an article in the NYTs). I’m going to try to record the every day occurrences, like what I ate, who I talked to, etc. I even decided I would write down what texts & emails I sent or received today. Even spam! It will be a record of just every day life. I hope I can continue with it. Love, Carol Richmond

  3. Lynne B Weissman says :

    How is it you know just what to say? How do you get to the deep insider perspective I are wrestling with? One student lost to this horrible disease because he was taking care of those who needed him. Twenty of my students working in ERs and praying they will make it back to their families keeping them safe and healthy. How this will end, I do not know, but I am gratefully for your words of encouragement and keeping me on the road of sanity and health.
    Be safe, be healthy

    With gratitude
    Lynne

  4. Rhonda Plawner says :

    So beautifully expressed. Yes Covid-19 has stolen so much from us, but I do have faith that when we emerge from this, we be kinder and have more compassion for each other.

  5. Sheila Bunin says :

    You’ve expressed so beautifully and poignantly what I’m feeling. Somehow I’ve been blocked in my ability to write about it – it’s so unusual and overwhelming. I manage to write daily details in my diary, but unable to journal-write my impressions and emotions. Your words resonated with me and brought tears to my eyes. I, too, am grateful for what I have, but am so saddened for all those who are suffering – not only from the virus, but from every deprivation they’re experiencing. Thank you for lifting our spirits with your love and hope.

  6. J. Scott (Yitzchak) says :

    My own personal wisdom reminds me to stop being depressed. I meditate through my art activities. But there are more: Instead of seeking the meaning of all this reality, I choose to experience whatever happening. Of course, I ask Hashem to keep me and by beloved family and friends safe.

    Another thing is that I have a new video phone program whereas I can see people while the Sign Language Relay Operator communicate for both sides. It is callled Wavello by Sorenson. All you have to do is go into http://www.sonenson.com/getwavello and download it into to your computer or mobile phone devices. This way I can see you and feel less alone.

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