By Mindy Rubenstein
Yesterday my good friend in New York told me about all the people she knows who have passed away just in the past week. She said it’s surreal and unsettling, but she’s trying to keep a sense of normalcy in her home, especially for her children.
She told me about visiting her sister in law, who not only had been sick but had just lost a close family member, so she was now in mourning. But she hadn’t even processed the emotional loss, she said, because she was feeling so bad physically. And as I pictured this young woman in my head, I thought of my own difficulty breathing the past few days, the discomfort in my chest, the low-grade fever, and the feeling of fatigue I realize are psychosomatic. I thought of my parents who live several hours away and have quarantined themselves.
At the end of a long day, I took a bath and tried to relax, to breathe. I have during my lifetime — I’m in my 40s now — gone through intense emotional ups and downs. I can’t say for sure if mine are any worse than others may experience. But they feel worse to me. I do take a low dose of medication, have talked to therapists, and pray often. I take walks daily. And I try to put my passion into my family and my creative work.
But over the weekend a deep sadness and irritability fell over me. I was vicious with my husband and myself, and looking back now it was like something had taken over my mind, had moved in and decided to sabotage my plans for spiritual awakening and inspiring others. I stopped writing, stopped praying, stopped loving. It hurt deeply to feel so lonely, so far from myself, from others, from G-d.
This week I read an article that my cousin, a therapist, shared that said this time is especially hard for anyone who already struggled with mental health. This new situation has made me think more of my mortality and to appreciate life, but reading the stories of health care professionals and hearing about all the death and suffering is taking a toll on even the strongest among us.
So as I lay in my warm bath, thinking of death and having to focus on my own breathing that I no longer take for granted, I suddenly felt sublimely peaceful. I felt filled with light and love, like my lifeforce could easily slip away into the next world. All this pain and fear and suffering could be gone.
And then I thought of a story I read recently of a young Jewish man who was being wheeled to the gas chambers with other seemingly lifeless bodies. At the last moment, he managed to get out in Yiddish just three words: I am alive. Again, he said it louder, I AM ALIVE. He was set aside, survived the Holocaust and went on to have children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
I, too, am alive. And as long as I’m still here, whether it’s another day, a decade or more, there’s still work to be done. It isn’t easy. And sometimes it hurts.
In Europe, the Nazis and their collaborators sealed the synagogues to punish, dehumanize and ultimately exterminate the Jews. Here in America, our government has asked us to close our shuls to SAVE us from harm. America tries to protect its Jewish citizens; the Nazis singled us out for destruction.
Yes, this pandemic is terrible and it’s dangerous and, in too many cases, lethal. But we will get through this. There is no government-sponsored plot to kill off Jews. With G-d’s help, this too shall pass, and we will be more sincere in our commitment to prayer and Torah.
There are people dying alone in hospitals, and my friend and I said how utterly sad this is. One man wept as he said the Shema prayer to his dying mother through the speakerphone of a reluctant and overworked doctor.
As he listened to the man saying goodbye to his mother, “Time slowed down and I felt restored to myself,” the doctor shared through a social media post. “It woke up some emotion in me that I had long forgotten about.”
These words really struck me and I’ve read them over and over again. He was restored to himself? As I put my hand to my chest and feel the rise and fall, feel my heart continue to beat, I think of the life-force keeping me here, even if I don’t acknowledge it.
We are never alone. As long as we are still here and can feel this heartbeat — G-d, Love, Life, whatever you choose to call It, remains within us.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate each precious breath — in and out — that’s being given to us.
I am alive. And so are you.
May Hashem heal all our people, speedily and in our days.