Days are scrolls — write on them what you want to be remembered.” — Bachya ibn Pakuda, 11th century rabbi and philosopher
This is one of my favorite quotations because it expresses a belief that I have firmly held for many years: it is within our control to determine the nature of the days of our lives and to decide what we want to remember about them. When the COVID-19 pandemic is over — whenever that will be — what will we want to be remembered about our days during this devastating health crisis?
Sometimes, it seems like one day is like every other. The numbers keep climbing in terms of how long we have been “sheltering in place” or “in quarantine.” Worse than that, the number of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths keep climbing, too. It would be great if we knew when we could stop the counting, but we don’t know that. Some states thought that everything was done and they could reopen, but their miscalculations and misinformation have confirmed just the opposite. When the history of this period is written, what will actually be remembered?
I have always been a “schedule-guy.” It was actually a pleasure to schedule activities when I was working, look forward to them, be involved in them, and remember them. I am — by nature — ritualistic, habitual, and repetitive in regard to what I like. My schedule would include a variety of activities, and in one day as a rabbi, I could experience a birth, a death, teaching, counseling, meeting with a wedding couple, and learning. The thought that I would get bored was far, far away.
That scheduling tendency has been my saving grace during the pandemic. Because of my age and medical conditions, I spend most of my time in our apartment. Yet, I wake up each morning looking forward to what I’m going to do that day, and I try to mix it up. There’s time with my wife (more than before), learning, reading, working on my next book, listening to music, watching TV and movies, eating and exercising. My days are not ordinary. They are enjoyable, invigorating, interesting and uplifting. Most of all, in addition to the teaching I have done since March, I love the learning.
My greatest experiences have been provided by the Streicker Center of Temple Emanu-El in New York City, the American Jewish Committee, Hebrew Union College, Hiddush—Freedom of Religion for Israel, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, MyJewishLearning.com, and the American Jewish Archives. Thanks to Zoom, I have seen and heard and learned from Natan Sharansky, Amy-Jill Levine, David Ellenson, Isaac Herzog, Dvora Weisberg, Avivah Zornberg, Lance Sussman and David Wolpe. You may not recognize all of those names, but I can tell you that they are prominent in the Jewish world.
You are never too old to learn. It is never too late to learn. When, because of a pandemic, you are forced to spend more time inside than you normally would, you can turn it into a positive. When, for your own safety, you are physically isolated from your family and friends, you do not have to be alone or bored. We refer to social media as “virtual communities,” and that has included Zoom. But the virtuality only applies to the technology. We who have spent time learning with others that we either know or don’t know, who sometimes are able to connect with a teacher for the first and perhaps the only time, who are part of a community of strangers for maybe an hour at the most, are still part of a community. We are not physically with others, but we are with them intellectually, emotionally and maybe even spiritually. Not virtually.
My Tanakh Study Group is in its 18th year, and most of its members are in their 80s and 90s. Confined to their homes, they feel freed by reading and discussing the texts I have chosen. Their days are scrolls that are written not only with the joy of learning, but also with the joy of seeing each other and not feeling isolated and not feeling bored. If life were “normal,” we would have been done at the end of May and would have taken the summer off. But we are continuing to meet every Sunday morning because we have chosen to write the sacred scrolls of our days with what we want to be remembered. You can, too.