A Psychology Lesson

While Standing (Six Feet Apart) On One Foot
May 15 – Erev Shabbat
It’s interesting that I haven’t really put pen to paper to do my sorta-daily blog. I was talking about this with one of my children and she said something interesting – ‘You are the only one putting pressure on yourself to accomplish something. Write when you have something to say.’ Well, can’t argue with that.
Sometimes there are long stretches when the days just kind of meld into one another. You’re probably sensing the same thing. It is almost exciting when I have to take out the garbage! It’s become the highlight of the week as far as outdoor activity goes! But, inside, it looks pretty status quo. There is plenty to do for the temple and serve its people with the new zoom reality. And I am looking to plan b’nai mitzvah ceremonies with families using whatever creative tools are at my disposal – and I am finding creative wells that I never knew I had! The simple fact, though, is that no matter how much work I can generate for myself, I still miss being with people. ‘With’ being the most important word.
There is something profoundly missing in the vacuum that is zoom. Our tradition says, ‘Life is with people.’ I don’t think they meant that life is with people….virtually. I miss the person-to-person warmth. I miss sitting beside students in class. I miss sitting on the floor with my Teen Academy students. I miss being on the bima with a bar/bat mitzvah child. I miss passing the Torah from one generation to the next. Life is with people. But, in this day and age, so is death.
The overriding commandment in Jewish faith is that nothing is more important than life. To this end we are to do everything we can to nourish it and protect it – ours and others’ as well. The two traditions are in necessary tension. Life is with people but if you are with people you very well may get the virus and die. We all have been patient and we will have to be even more patient.
Most people get it. Close quarter businesses like restaurants are very afraid that, even though the government may be forced to open (eg. Wisconsin), are people going to be confident enough to go inside with a still-present virus for which there is no vaccine? Some, for sure. Others, no way. (The only reason we never gave it any thought before this is because our parents made sure we got our childhood vaccines. If not, we probably wouldn’t have lived as long as we have).
What we are seeing at this point in the pandemic is a human response to a crisis. Being cooped up has given rise to the two tensions and a path to reconcile them by ignoring at least one. There is a cognitive dissonance that has a hard time reconciling ‘Life is with people’ and ‘Therefore, choose life.’ To reduce that dissonance, we engage in mental gymnastics. We seek out others who dismiss the risk, thereby reinforcing our own choice and bias. Maybe we tell ourselves that the number of dead is a lie or, at best, grossly misleading. Or maybe we tell ourselves that we are immune to the disease. Whatever path we take to reduce the dissonance, it is a built-in hard-wired part of being human. Whatever path we choose, it a form of magical thinking and humans are expert at it. To see the videos of the packed bars and restaurants in some now-open states is to watch how humans can suppress their most basic instinct to stay alive versus their desire to be with others. I may get angry that they are putting me in danger since they openly and willingly expose themselves. But I can’t get mad at their magical thinking. It is as natural to people as is breathing.
How we deal with the competing Jewish traditions will determine how we emerge from the pandemic. Being hard-wired to find a way to explain our choices is probably a simple biological fact of how our brains work. But the other thing that is hard-wired into each of us is the ability to think and choose rationally. Falling in love may be the expression of the heart over the head. But marriage is the dominance of the head over the heart. The same is true on this erev Shabbat. Let’s feel the joy of the day of rest. But let’s not celebrate this special day by being irresponsible and endangering ourselves or others. We need to start thinking with our souls both for ourselves and everyone else who breathes in the same air as we do.