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Steve Leder: Coronavirus and worry — fight back with faith and the 23rd Psalm

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On Zoom yesterday a friend asked me how I was doing in the midst of the pandemic. “Without dismissing the death and economic pain,” I answered, “honestly, I find the whole thing epic. I feel invigorated and called to serve.”

“Easy for you to say,” he said. “You’re a charismatic leader. Of course you think this whole thing is epic and invigorating. You’ve never been a worrier.”

He’s wrong. I worry a lot. I worry someone I love will die alone in the ICU. I worry my retirement savings won’t come back and I will be cheated out of spending the last years of my life in calm and comfort with the woman I have loved since the moment I first saw her walk into the room 35 years ago.

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My millennial kids and their entire generation will be marked by this crisis for the rest of their lives, the way the Great Depression marked my grandparents, and I fear that most of them will need help for a decade or more before they can fully stand on their own two feet.

I worry my congregation will lose families and our schools will lose students who might now consider religion a luxury not a necessity; leaving themselves, the institution and the community I have worked my entire adult life to build, physically and spiritually empty.

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When my head aches deep behind my eyes and temples, which it does a lot lately, I worry I have the virus. When I leave the cemetery after burying yet another COVID-19 victim, like the handful of mourners allowed to attend – distanced, masked, unable to hold or be held – I feel panic, despair and doubt.

But I don’t give into fear for long. Instead, I fight back with faith.

In these surreal, frustrating and anxious months I have turned most often to the 23rd Psalm. Many Jews, Christians and Muslims, and religious and non-religious people, know it well. I have read its famous words for decades, but never has it comforted me more than during these strange, uncertain days, especially the seemingly simple verse “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil, for You are with me.”

That simple sentence reminds me that we are all walking, step by step, through something. We will not remain on this terrible journey forever. To have faith is to know this crisis will end. After all, what is a valley of shadows? A shadow, no matter how long or how dark, is actually proof of light. It is impossible for a shadow to exist unless somewhere, somehow a powerful light still shines.

I have already felt glimmers of insight as I travel through the valley of COVID-19. The shadow cast upon the world by this pandemic is frightening and yet, so too an ever-present reminder that even in the darkest hour, our light, God’s light, the light of our love for the dearest of family and friends, the light of our love for our cities, neighborhoods and the simplest blessings of daily life we so often took for granted, still shine.

COVID-19 has stripped away a lot of nonsense from my life and in that stripping away something beautiful has emerged; a knowing that we were better meant to be home, closer to God and the people we love most.    

And like many, I am asking enlightening questions. Do we really need so many suits, ties, shoes, purses and outfits to wear? How many meetings do we really need to attend? Did we need to spend so much time away from home for so many years? How much do we have to spoil the earth by driving and buying, driving and buying, driving and buying?

COVID-19 has stripped away a lot of nonsense from my life and in that stripping away something beautiful has emerged; a knowing that we were better meant to be home, closer to God and the people we love most.

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The days of the ancient Jewish calendar begin at sunset; darkness pregnant with light. The Hebrew months begin when the moon is new, in its darkest phase, just a slim crescent of light against the black sky. The Sages remind us that we see light through our pupil, the darkest part of our eye. It is powerful and profound that the Talmud requires even the blind to recite the ancient blessing for the new moon; affirming with faith what cannot be seen.

Right now, we are all called to affirm a light we sometimes cannot see through our anxiety, pain and tears. Darkness is the moment for faith.

Believe me, I am not campaigning for it, nor does the position exist, but if there was such a job as Chief Rabbi of Those Who Suffer, and I held that job, here is what I would say to the world right now. I would remind everyone that life is long. Long enough to restart, to rebuild, to take more pictures, to create more memories, to heal. I would remind them to have faith that the moon will soon enough be full, reflecting the sun’s great power for warmth and light. I would quote Albert Camus who said, “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

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I know the overwhelming, cold darkness of a desert valley that sometimes engulfs us all. I am walking that valley myself, like so many others. But I also know the human spirit endures. The valley may be long and the shadows too. But we are walking toward the day we emerge slowly but surely back to laughter; to holding and being held.

We are walking toward a life deeper in gratitude and deeper in faith that the sun will rise no matter how dark the night, as it did yesterday and as it will tomorrow.

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