Community Blog What Is Essential?

By Rabbi Brian Besser
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Rabbi Brian BesserAccording to the Piasetzner Rebbe, for 400 years, throughout the entire period of their enslavement, the Children of Israel would sing the Song of the Sea, every Shabbat, week after week, rehearsing the Song of Redemption in the midst of their affliction, preparing for the day that they would one day be free. They had no idea when that day would come. They had no idea if that day would come. They only knew that if ever they were to be redeemed, they would be ready for it. They enacted their freedom, even while still enslaved.

I have come to a personal decision regarding this period of lockdown and quarantine, the duration of which none of us can know. I don’t want to merely survive this period of adversity, to endure it. I don’t want to brave the coronavirus crisis as a difficulty to put behind me as quickly as possible and return to business as usual. Rather, I intend to seek out the unique lessons and spiritual gifts that this crisis affords. I intend to grow from them, to be permanently transformed, and to approach life in an entirely new way.

During the past several weeks, our world has turned upside down. No activity can proceed normally; every assumption is called into doubt. What an extraordinary opportunity to question basic behaviors. For example, I am a planner. I have been known to plan vacations years in advance! Strong organizational skills are generally a good thing—they help me manage my busy schedule. But, suddenly, I find that I don’t even know what I’m doing next week! I can’t plan even if I want to.

The coronavirus has thrust me into living “one day a time.” That’s a blessing. I can give myself permission to be spontaneous. I can be present with each and every experience that comes my way. Instead of constantly thinking about the next appointment on my schedule, I can concentrate on being fully present with the person right there in front of me.

The coronavirus has forced all of us to focus on our priorities. That’s a blessing. Like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, who had no time for their bread to rise, who could take with them only the barest of necessities, we too are discovering what is extraneous and what is essential. What is essential?  I can answer for myself. Certainly not vacations, but my vocation. Not the business of my day, but the quality of my day. Not the things I do, but the loving presence and attention I bring to the things I do.

Pesach is zeman cheiruteinu, the Season of our Freedom. What freedom is there to celebrate while on lockdown and quarantine? Out of the depths of the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl wrote: “Everything can be taken from a [person] but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Here is my prayer and blessing to you, as well as to myself, on this particular Pesach. May we be attentive and open to the unique spiritual gifts afforded by the unprecedented situation in which we find ourselves. May we come to realize what is truly vital in our lives—and what we can live without. May we sing the Song of Redemption each and every day of our confinement, so that on the day that the coronavirus is finally behind us once and for all—and that day will come—we will not return to business as usual, but we will emerge stronger, wiser, and transformed.


Rabbi Brian Besser `10 is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bloomington, IN.

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