Two years ago, it seemed very strange to me that I had learned almost nothing about the Flu epidemic of 1918-19 at school. The second deadliest epidemic of all time, second only to the Black Death of the 14th Century, seemed to have been erased from our collective consciousness, reduced to foot notes in volumes on the history of the First World War. Now, in the summer of 2022 it no longer seems so strange.
Two years into this pandemic, I feel the urge to forget about Covid. When I meet up with old friends, some of whom I haven’t seen since pre-Covid times, it feels strange to discuss 2020, as if those months in isolation somehow don’t count to the total of our lives.
Though Covid is still around, it feels like the country as a whole is moving on. I’m grateful that for most of us Covid’s threat has been greatly reduced, and thankful for modern science producing vaccines in record time to keep us safe, though we should do more to recall that there are still many people for whom this disease might be life-threatening. And as the country seems to be moving on, it seems that many people feel like me, ready to put it all behind them – to forget about the Covid years.
In Judaism we try to remember our tragedies as well as our triumphs.
This Saturday night is Tisha B’Av, the Ninth of Av, the saddest day in the Jewish calendar, when we fast for 25 hours and remember the terrible things that have happened to us in our history, especially the destruction of the temple in 70 CE. 2000 years is a long time to be sad, but Jewish tradition wants us to sit with the feelings of loss and pain, not to rush through them to get back to ‘normal’. We voluntarily experience minor suffering, abstaining from the pleasures of food and drink, sexual relations, showering, fresh clothes and more. Tisha b’Av exists as a rupture from every day life, and in that rupture, we try to experience brokenness.
Only after we wallow in sadness do we allow ourselves to move on.
In this week’s Torah reading of Devarim, Moses reminds the Israelites how God spoke to them after Sinai and said: “You have stayed long enough at this mountain” (Deut 1:6). There can be too much of a good thing, and while Sinai was a beautiful moment of learning, contemplation and communion with God, eventually, the Israelites had to move on.
Shlomo Alkabetz, the author of Lecha Dodi, drew from that phrase and combined it with Psalm 84’s Valley of Bacha / Tears, writing: “You have stayed long enough in the Valley of Tears”. Just as we can stay too long at Sinai, we can stay too long in sadness. After Tisha B’Av we pick ourselves up and start preparing for Rosh Hashanah, and the time of repentance.
It’s too early to know how these Covid years will be remembered, but I hope that we can learn from Jewish tradition these vital lessons. Sadness shouldn’t be run away from, but you should allow yourself to truly feel it. Once we feel again the loss and pain, we should remember that we need to move on, and begin the work of repairing the world.
Roni Tabick is rabbi for New Stoke Newington Shul
Rabbi Roni will be hosting a pre-fast meal in his home on the evening of Wednesday 26th July, followed at 9pm with a service for the Ninth of Av and a reading of Eicha, the book of Lamentations. Contact [email protected] for the address.
The fast begins in London at 8:58pm on Wednesday and ends at Thursday at 9:48pm.