It was exactly nine months ago today that my community entered lockdown because of COVID-19. It was a bizarre, disorienting experience as novel as the virus itself. And while my community leaders spoke optimistically of needing “a few weeks to figure this thing out,” all knew that was unrealistic.
When I spoke to my congregation on the last Sunday we were together, I said as much: “This disruption will extend far beyond two weeks. We will have to confront the same sufferings of Europe. The impact will be far-reaching and long-lasting in a way that few on the planet have ever witnessed, and even after the virus wanes and normalcy returns, the recovery will take a great deal of time.”
God knows I’m not a prophet. I only had to answer the eternal question posed by Bob Dylan: “How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” Anyone with even a sliver of vision knew that “a hard rain was gonna fall” (to quote Dylan again)! To deny this fact was to be malignantly arrogant or willfully ignorant.
Of course, this pandemic hasn’t finished with us in these nine months, even though some falsely predicted that we would now be in the clear. Communities are setting grim records every day for new cases and hospitalizations, and the death count will inevitably rise as the days grow shorter and colder.
Nine months is not an insignificant period of time. It’s time enough to fulfill the requirements of an academic year, to complete a healing cycle of chemotherapy, to build a new home, or to control a pandemic. Naturally, nine months is also the length of human gestation: Nine months is the time it takes for something new and wonderful to be born.
There is an idea in Jewish mysticism that says each person must be spiritually configured before he or she enters the world. This takes place during the months of pregnancy, the rabbis say. Thus, the womb is a sanctuary of preparation: It is not just the body that is forming, goes this thinking, it is the spirit. Those critical month are for both body and soul.
For three-quarters of a year we have complained about restrictions, pined for the day when life could return to a routine, and lamented over lost opportunities and time. But have we used this time to gestate our spirits? Have we used this unusual season to work on our spiritual health?
I fear we have not, for the one thing proving more difficult than mitigating this virus, is our inability to sit still, ruminate, reflect, grow, and to conduct the kind of self-evaluation that will lead us to living better lives on the other side of this terrible scourge. “You must be born again,” Jesus said, with words more necessary than ever. That birth requires the time and willingness to be properly formed. Indeed, that time is now, if we are willing.