by Miriam Ginzburg
As someone learning in a midrasha (or a Jewish seminary) in Jerusalem, everything is infused with meaning. It might seem strange—to say a blessing before and after eating anything (kosher!), to say a blessing upon waking up and lying down, to pray three times a day, or to go around with books of psalms, to fill any passing moments with a few more recited pages.
A lot of the articles that I’ve seen during this period have been about what we should be doing physically to take care of ourselves during this period, rather than taking care of ourselves inside, to truly bring us comfort. What we do here, in this unique culture, has brought so much comfort, especially in the quarantine situation we are in now.
In case you’re curious—it’s been getting stricter and stricter every couple of days. Currently we are limited to 100 meters around the house, with police cars on every other street, to make sure you’re walking the streets for a good reason, and with a mask and gloves on.
At first it was hard to feel normal—but with the things that we do, it’s hard to remain pessimistic for long. Here’s a peek into a different culture that might be completely foreign to you—but that nevertheless has lessons that can bring comfort.
Photo of a spring tree by Miriam Ginzburg
Self-improvement (the real value of productivity)
This past week, we celebrated Passover—one of the most important holidays of the year. As most Jewish holidays go, it’s filled with symbolism and serves as a reminder to use each day to become better and improve.
Before this week-long holiday, Jews all over the world go searching through their whole house, cleaning it and destroying chametz (leavened products), even mere crumbs of it, until there’s no trace left. (There’s even a joke that it was Jews who invented spring cleaning!)
The difference between what we are allowed to eat (matza) and what we are not allowed to eat (chametz) during Pesach is that it is leavened—or physically puffed up—just like we can be puffed up with pride.
Just as we go searching through our houses not just for traces of leavened wheat, we also are meant to search through ourselves for traces of pride. Too much pride generally leaves you weak and incapable of learning and improving in your life.
During this holiday season, we’re meant to clear the chametz not just from our houses, but also from ourselves, and discard the pride that we have and replace it with matza—the bread of freedom—the freedom to choose our direction and improve every day.
It’s a time to consider what is truly important to us—and pursue it.
Productivity and self-improvement should not just be about our career or educational success—but for personal meaning. What is important for you – what has meaning for you? What would you like to change or learn for yourself, so that you can find significance and meaning in what you do every day?
Take time to rest—truly.
On that note, I don’t know about you, but I’ve been seeing a ton of posts online reminding the reader about using this quarantine to be more productive. It’s a fair point – but everyone needs and deserves a break.
Note: a true break. Not one that leaves you lacking and wanting more rest, but one that leaves you satisfied and feeling renewed with new energy to tackle the upcoming week.
Given the quarantine, it’s difficult for many to fill their now-free hours with something fun to do—so it’s no wonder that there’s been a dramatic viewership spike on Netflix! But watching Netflix all the time isolates us from the people around us, when we need them most—and from living our own lives. (And personally, leaves me either still tired, or wanting more, rather than restoring my strength.)
There’s a reason that after working the whole week, we have a specific day (Shabbat) that is meant to be full of complete relaxation and pleasure. It allows us to walk the world we live in for a day not focused on creating or producing—or being on our phones. Instead, we are immersed in the moment—of family and friends, of good food, of true relaxation, of pleasure, and thankfulness for what we have.
Needless to say, technology can both connect us and isolate us – and what it does for us depends on how we use it. It might be a good idea to choose a day to make use of the capabilities of technology only to bring us together, rather than isolate us through work, social media, or Netflix. We can instead use that time to focus on what is important in our lives—our friends, and family, and thankfulness for what we have. Why not do it with some games and good food and great conversations?
Photo of grilling steaks by Miriam Ginzburg
Find a reason to celebrate.
Make sure to find reasons to celebrate. A few weeks back, in honor of my housemate’s one-year anniversary in Israel, we decided to all chip in to buy a disposable grill and try out some new recipes on our balcony. (I personally tried one steak with kiwi juice, soy sauce, and grated garlic, and the other with mayonnaise, onion, and garlic.) Then this past week during Passover we tried grilling some batata, eggplant, and chicken legs—to great success!
In our adult lives it’s easy to forget magical moments in our past as time goes on. The beautiful new house loses its luster in our minds with time, the day we graduated from university yields before worries about the future, and successes at work or in our personal lives that we were so ecstatic about are forgotten in favor of pressure to achieve more, more, and more.
It’s natural to lose appreciation for things that we were so happy about with time—but quite honestly, it doesn’t have to be that way. There’s no need to only celebrate the familiar holidays that you’ve grown up with and that you are expected to celebrate. Remember all that you have—and all the happy moments that led to you having what you have– and you will have so many reasons to celebrate.
Photo of preparing food during Passover by Miriam Ginzburg
You’ve probably heard the famous phrase “Don’t go to bed angry.” It’s generally meant as marriage advice—but it’s a rule that can be applicable for any kind of person in your life.
Before I go to bed, I like to release any anger, resentment, or hurt built up during the day with a specific part of the bedtime prayers that is about forgiving anyone who hurt us that day– whether it was under duress, willingly, by mistake, or on purpose—by speech or by action.
In stressful times especially, we have to remember to forgive the people around us—whether they live with us together or we simply meet them at the grocery store. It’s important to remember to be kind—and when others aren’t necessarily kind to you, to forgive. When we are all cooped up, it’s easy to lash out at the ones we love—or don’t even know.
I can remember how in some ways it was easier to get along when we weren’t stuck inside all together in this situation, and how things used to be—and use it as a reminder that when people (including you!) lash out now, it’s because of stress, and not because they truly mean it.
Be thankful. Find significance in the smallest moments.
It is so incredibly important to be thankful and find significance in even the smallest moments—even more so now than ever.
When we wake up in the morning, we say a blessing for giving us another day of life, and when we eat even a single piece of fruit, we express our thanks for bringing fruit up out of the soil, for us to eat and nourish ourselves.
We even thank G-d when we do something that we haven’t had an opportunity to do in a long time. (Did you know there’s a specific blessing for when we meet a friend we haven’t seen in a long time? I suppose it’s time to get to memorizing it for after the quarantine ?)
During the month of Nisan (falling around March-April), we switch to spring blessings—and make sure to say a blessing on the blossoming fruit trees. As I walk my 100 meters radius around my apartment, I feel so happy, and I’m not quite sure if it’s because I appreciate going outside so much more now, or if it’s because the streets around me truly have changed. The whole neighborhood seems to have transformed from dry and dusty desert streets into winding streets full of beautiful foliage – fruit trees overflowing with both blossoms and ripening fruit, thick vines climbing up the houses, roses of every color, and walls of white jasmine flowers that you can smell from a block away. (And occasionally parrots, for some weird reason.)
What’s amazing is that this beautiful change is happening all over the world—and without it, our grocery stores and markets would simply stand empty, and we would have nothing to eat.
In reality, thankfulness and gratitude can transform us into happier and more optimistic beings. In one study, two psychologists asked their study participants to write a list every week, focusing on different topics. The first group recorded things that had happened during the week that they were grateful for, while the second group recorded daily irritations, and the third—neutral events that had affected them that week.
At first, it was difficult for the first group to meet the minimum amount of entries in terms of things they were grateful for—but after ten weeks, not only were participants easily coming up with more than the minimum amount of reasons for their lists, but also they became more optimistic and felt better about their lives.
Most of all, even as we’re separated by our apartment or house walls, it’s important to remain united.
One of the things that has been incredibly inspiring is seeing the unity among people even during this quarantine, when we are isolated physically from each other.
During Passover—one of the most important Jewish holidays of the year—family and friends typically travel to get together for multiple meals, especially the ritual seder. Despite the fact that all the synagogues are closed, organized prayer groups are banned, and there’s no travel out of any city—you can still see the unity among the people.
When I go to the grocery store, there are of course awkward moments, like the people who stumble in their attempt to get away from you if you happen to sneeze. Yet there are still so many moments of understanding. There are the people who let me go ahead at the checkout when I’m in a hurry, group chat messages urging not to buy out the stores so that everyone has enough food left for their families, and friends and loved ones (and sometimes even acquaintances) checking in to see if we’re doing well, and are okay in terms of food, supply, shelter, and money.
Even now, as we are sitting in our homes, there are so many ways to make a difference in someone else’s day—even just a little bit—and it’s more important to do that now than ever before. Smile, and give something back, because we’re all in this together.
Taking lessons into the future
Above all, the symbolism is apparent – that as we are sitting inside our homes, we are also getting the opportunity to live with just ourselves, and find out who we are, without all the noise that comes with normal life.
What’s going on now really does strip life down to what’s important, and allows us to think about, realize, and focus on what it is that we really want, and cherish in life.
We can use this time for reflection, and to come back to what is truly important – so that we can take those lessons with us, and create a brighter, better future – together.