In this time of Covid 19 we have had to do a lot of tzimtzum, contraction. We have had to pull inward even when we go outside. We have had to shelter with stay at home orders. We have had to pull inward with social distancing and using face masks when we go out into the world. We have had to pull back from hand shaking and hugging and always having sanitizer ready. Even as we have contracted our daily lives, I have witnessed a lot of people taking the change in the flow of time and space to do reflective work or take on tasks of learning long set aside. Rather than just shutting down, we have shifted the energy into positive labors to strengthen ourselves or send different blessings into the world. I am reminded of the words of Reb Shmelke of Nikolsburg.
He said; the Talmud tells us that if all the world were to repent, the Messiah would come. Knowing this, I decided to so something about it. Where to begin? The world? It was too large and I was too small. So I thought: let me start with my own country, that too proved too much for me. My own town? I failed there as well. My neighborhood, my own family? Even there I did not succeed. Never mind, I thought, I shall work on myself.
With oneself, one reaches the irreducible minimum. We can each begin with ourselves. 1
Even as some of the Covid 19 restrictions on movement and activity have been relaxed, our country has been rocked/moved by the response to the death of George Floyd. The world out there needs our care and attention. There is brokenness that calls us to action. In the space of a few days, I went from Reb Shemlke’s call to turn inward and focus on something smaller to the words of Hillel. “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Pirke Avot 1:14
Hillel’s words called out to me. Even if we pull in, in order to protect ourselves or to work in depth on a finite task or space, we can’t stay in the bubble forever. Our world is interconnected, so there is no island where it is just us. What we do, and how we do it, has an impact and affect that spirals out from us.
A few years ago I wrote this meditation for the Scroll:
Breathe in, hold it, breathe out. As you do this a few times, make an effort to feel your lungs expand and then contract. Breathe in, hold it, breathe out. Think about your breath separating from the atmosphere and then returning to the greater whole. In Hebrew, the terms are Klal Prat klal. We see the big picture. Then, we focus on a single point or area. When our work in that space is concluded, or we need a break, we step back to see how our small piece is part of something bigger. Klal Prat klal. Expand, contract, expand…
We must realize that it is okay to pick a focus, either the microcosm or macrocosm, but then, we must remember that Jewish wisdom and tradition challenges us to move. While we can achieve great things and make a difference in one state or another, sometimes the action of moving back and forth is what feeds our work, sustains our energy, keeping us in balance so we can have meaningful experiences and sound investments of time and energy in each space and place we find ourselves existing.
As the world starts back up, let us go out mindfully and carefully. There are great things to do in our world, and yet we have to remember the blessings of being in a bubble. Most importantly, we must find a rhyme and rhythm to move back and forth and in doing so, empower ourselves to face the challenges of our world with passion, compassion and grace.
1 Day by Day by Rabbi Chaim Stern on Parshat Korach
Rabbi Michael Birnholz