Masks and Emotions: Two Spiritual Takes on Quarantine

Oasis Songs: Musings from Rav D
Friday, April 24, 2020 / 30 Nisan 5780

THROUGH A LENS OF FIRE: Hasidic Insights on the Torah
continues on Wednesday, April 29th at 12:30 pm. Please check the CNS calendar for the Zoom link.

Summary: This week’s Oasis Song focuses on two issues. One is our task to confront the many different emotions that quarantine stirs up. The other is our ongoing need to provide for the most vulnerable. Each is a Jewish and a human obligation. A new CNS project will be to make masks that will be distributed to our street population. Please see below for more information.

Internal Needs

By now, everyone has had all sorts of thoughts about the Coronavirus and what it means to us personally, politically and socially. I know I have, and as a teaser, the theme of our upcoming Chronicle is all about COVID-19. There’s a lot of hardship and opportunity all wrapped up together during this long hunker-down. Both are worth exploring.

We are discovering our resilience—and its limits. Many people I have spoken with who are still working report having some unproductive days when they can’t get anything accomplished. There are lots of reasons for this—working from home brings with it temptations and additional demands, especially for those of us who are still raising our kids. The days can also blend together, one much like the next. Spouses and siblings are spending lots of time together, and that is both a welcome change and an occasion when we may find ourselves getting more on one another’s nerves.

Many of us are also feeling particularly cut off. For extroverts, sheltering at home carries an additional cost—those of us who are energized by engaging with people have lost a powerful motivational engine. There’s only so far Zoom, Skype and FaceTime can take you.

Like many “big moments,” there are challenges we all share. And then there are the very personal and sometimes invisible hardships.

On a spiritual level, this time period is rife with meaning. During my Wednesday class, we’ve been looking at interesting Hasidic texts and stories that help us plumb some of those lessons. One quality that doesn’t seem to get as much airplay, though, is how the emotion of despair can be a useful guide. I was thinking about that particularly as we approached the seventh day of Passover. That’s when tradition has us waiting to cross the Yam Suf, sometimes translated in English as the Sea of Reeds, sometimes as the Red Sea, as Pharaoh’s soldiers gave chase.

There’s a famous midrash about Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was the first person to finally plunge into the sea as Pharaoh’s chariots drew near. Normally, we hold up Nachshon as an exemplar of courage, or at least someone who can make a leap of faith. But this year, I imagined the fear and despair of the Israelites, and Nachshon too. They had to have felt trapped at the sea’s edge, with no conceivable way to escape their predicament. What dread!

The poem below came out of those imaginings. It was an attempt to learn from our ancestor’s experiences. While not everyone feels comfortable with poetry, for many of us it offers an invitation to slow down and observe a moment in a way that is different from other forms of communication and writing.

External Needs: A Mask Drive

An additional spiritual challenge continues to irk me with its sharp glare and that is our homeless population during the current pandemic. When we are in crisis or confronted with tremendous change, there is a natural tendency to turn inward, and focus on “number one.” Like the oxygen mask on an airplane, we do need to take care of ourselves first. However, there also comes a moment when our religious and social commitments demand we turn outward and address the needs of those beyond our families and our individual communities, such as Neveh Shalom.

Indeed, so many stories have been heartwarming. There’s a Chicago doctor who has moved into a hotel to live and care for a high risk homeless population who is sheltering there. His Catholic faith has propelled him to undertake this heroic act.

Closer to home, a few individuals have touched me with things they are doing to help.

This week, I became acquainted with the work of Dr. Bill Tepper through one of my Common Table friends. He started a wonderful venture called Portland Street Medicine. A crew of doctors with vans stocked with medical supplies drive our streets, providing direct care for the acute needs of our street population. They are continuing to do this during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Also this past week, Diane Fredgant reached out to me. She is a Judaica textile artist who works primarily in silk. Here’s her website: She made a tallit for my older son’s bar mitzvah a couple years back, which is stunning. In any case, she recently converted her studio’s focus to making masks for family and friends. While sewing one, she felt an inner compulsion to offer masks to some of our Portland area rabbis and their families and my family was fortunate enough to be a recipient.

As I reflected on the work of Dr. Tepper and Diane Fredgant, I wondered about combining the thrust of those two missions. What would it look like for Neveh Shalom congregants to sew masks that could be distributed to our street neighbors? Many of our congregants have already been busy sewing 900 masks that went to Cedar Sinai. As we all know, personal masks are in short supply and for the homeless who don’t have easy access to laundry facilities, that need is exacerbated.

To help in this, Diane has agreed to create a video on how to make a simple mask. Once she has completed the video, we will send that link out to you on Wednesday, along with a list of materials needed to make those masks. Finally, on May 3rd, CNS will be hosting a one hour Zoom workshop from 5-6 pm. Some of our skilled sewers and mask-makers will be available to demo, trouble shoot and otherwise be helpful to those who would like to participate in this wonderful mitzvah. Completed masks can be dropped off in a zip lock into a bin outside CNS that we will have set up.


Rav D

This is the Gift of Despair
A Passover Poem composed during pandemic

This is the gift of despair
Which opened at the shore of the sea.

And this is the gift of despair
Which is not darkness but call

A lighthouse cutting through fog,
Limning in silvered lambency

The perilous shoals which block our way.
They also stand as sentinels
To the life we are meant to claim.

It happened like this
At the shore of the sea

When we thought we were free
From all that enslaved us.

Our herky-jerky toward a freedom
We barely could imagine, barely contain.

And the world suddenly put a stop
To all our frantic movements.

At the shore of the sea we heard
The clamor and grinding of Pharaoh’s wheels

Chariots and soldiers, chariots and soldiers
And despair in the pit of our bellies.

All we thought was for nought
All our hopes but illusion.

I know you have felt it too.
I know you have pushed that feeling away.

Too much to let it sweep over us;
So we paralyzed ourselves with movement
Hoping to hasten the all-clear

Stocking up on provisions and dry goods
For a journey we’ll each make at home.

And again, it happened like this
At the shore of the sea,

Amid the roar of Pharaoh’s men
Amid the clanking of metal weapons

We stood thick with despair
Even our empty dancing failed.

Till the one who made friends with despair
Stepped into the waters of despondency.

We call him by his name of Nachshon
But it’s the surname which comes to teach—

Ben Aminadav—I am the son
Of a people graced with generosity,

A child of expansiveness
Who opened to the gift of despair,

Who understood the only way past is through
Who plunged up to his thighs, his chest.

Tradition says, they lapped at his nostrils,
Those waters of despondency;

Then slowly, suddenly they split
The way was clear, freedom restored.

But it happened like this
Because one saw

That this is the gift of despair
Guiding our way through the mist

To the freedom not yet realized
To the life we are meant to claim.

Shabbat Table Talk

  1. How long a list of emotions could you generate for your experiences during Coronavirus? Think creatively–words like listless, snug-as-a-bug, or terrified or grateful are just some of dozens of possibilities.
  2. Have you found it difficult to focus on the needs of those further removed, or are you still engaged in acts of chesed?
  3. When is the last time you sewed anything? (And for mask-makers, what did you last sew that wasn’t a mask?)

If you’d like to continue this discussion, follow this link to CNS’s Facebook page to share your own perspectives on the topics raised in this week’s Oasis Songs. Comments will be moderated as necessary.

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