These days many of us are living in some kind of quarantine– separated from each other and the daily activities that defined our day. We’re locked in our homes feeling afraid and overwhelmed… worried about getting sick… or the health of our loved ones… or losing work… or how in Heaven’s Name we are going to keep our home-bound kids (and husbands) occupied and make Pesach at the same time.
It’s extremely important at times like these to know how to focus inward, to regain a sense of balance and strengthen ourselves for the days ahead.
Many have offered their interpretation of why the current pandemic and the resulting response is happening to us on a national level. I’ve done it as well.
But, what about each of us as individuals? How do we not only survive but thrive on a personal level even under such challenging circumstances? How do we stay calm and positive when we are fighting against rising waves of stress, fear, anxiety and overwhelm?
And, how do we answer the question: Why is this happening to me?!
Someone recently ask the Belzer Rebbe what can be done about the coronavirus epidemic? The Rebbe responded with the following verse in Mishlei:
A man’s spirit will sustain his illness,
but a broken spirit-who will bear it?
רֽוּחַ־אִ֖ישׁ יְכַלְכֵּ֣ל מַחֲלֵ֑הוּ וְר֥וּחַ נְ֜כֵאָ֗ה מִ֣י יִשָּׂאֶֽנָּה
A man’s spirit: The spirit of a גבר, who is a mighty person, does not take worry to heart, but accepts with simcha and love whatever befalls him.
will sustain his illness: He does not lose his strength
Who is mighty? One who controls his impulses…
אֵיזֶהוּ גִבּוֹר, הַכּוֹבֵשׁ אֶת יִצְרוֹ
Pirkei Avos 4:2
One of the most important things we need to do in times like these is to strengthen ourselves and stay positive. We need to catch ourselves from slipping into a state of depression and heaviness, fear and worry, anxiety and panic and do whatever we can to get out of these feelings if we’ve already fallen into them.
I recently saw a video of Rabbi Elimelech Biderman in which he explains the importance of not succumbing to fear and anxiety. Rabbi Biderman brings a quote from Rav Yosef Chayim, the Baghdadi Chacham, who writes in his sefer Ben Yehoyada:
“When there’s a epidemic, such as virus spreading around, it is good to leave the town because the fear and panic that ensues harms the person and makes him ill. Because a person who fears the disease becomes vulnerable to the disease.”
The Baghdadi Chacham then brings a mashal:
“There was once a cholera epidemic in a large town. Before the virus spread a man met the angel in charge of the epidemic and asked him ‘How many people are you going to take?’ The angel said, ‘I’m taking five thousand people.’ When fifteen thousand people died instead, the man met the angel again and asked him why he had lied. The angel replied ‘I didn’t lie. I only took five thousand people. The remaining ten thousand people who died brought the disease upon themselves because of their fears.’
“Fear and panic [actually] bring the disease,” concludes the the Baghdadi Chacham.
“We have a mitzvah to protect ourselves,” continues Rav Biderman, “but why the fear? Hashem is with us!”
Fear, panic, depression and anxiety hide Hashem’s Presence and push Him away.
The Divine Presence does not rest [on someone who is] in a state of sorrow…
According to the Rambam, Hashem will only rest His Presence on one who is b’simcha (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah 7:3) and part of this simcha, is the realization of being connected to and in the presence of Hashem.
But how do we get to this place? How can we control our emotions and come to actually feel that Hashem is with us in this challenging time and any other challenge in the future?
Here are a few things we can do:
Speak it out with others. Others can see things that we by ourselves cannot, and that clarity can take us to places we never could have gotten to on our own. Plus, simply by offering a sympathetic ear, our spiritual leaders, friends and family can also give us new energy and resolve when we are caught in our day-to-day struggles and trying to keep our heads above the water.
Seek out the good. Getting in the habit of seeking out, focusing on, and being thankful for the good that Hashem is sending our way is one of the biggest segulas there is to protect what we have from harm or loss. It also opens the doors to additional brocha and yeshuas.
You can be thankful for your spouse… your children… your health…
At the same time, we also need to remember to seek out the good in ourselves, too! Did you prepare a tasty meal… were you supportive of your children… did you get some work done… clean a little for Pesach… say some Tehillim for another person who needs a yeshua…?
Take some time to reflect. We need to pay attention to our thoughts– particularly the distressful ones. Before every emotion and feeling there is always a thought that proceeds it. What and how we think actually causes us to feel a certain way. This means if we can recognize negative thoughts and change the narrative, we can change the way we feel over time.
The truth is being sad, depressed or anxious is really the biggest lie in the world, even if it feels the most natural and real at the time.
So, what “lies” are your thoughts telling you?
Keep moving. But even where we can’t change our thoughts enough, there is always action. Chazal tell us that our actions can also change the way we feel and eventually the way we think.
So, even if you feel like staying in bed all day and running away from the situation, you still need to just get up and get things done. Find something useful to do even if you don’t feel like doing it: clean some small part of your home… say encouraging things to those around you, have mercy on those who need it, put a smile on your face even if you feel sad inside.
Do good to others. In the same vein, if you know of people who are struggling, then make it a point to reach out to them and find ways to help. Not only will this make you feel better, but it can unlock a flow of brocha and Divine Assistance in your life.
According to the Zohar, when Hashem wants to show us compassion, He first sends to us an individual who, himself is in need of compassion. When we have compassion on this person, then Hashem has compassion on us, as it says, “Whoever has compassion on God’s creatures, receives compassion from heaven.
Daven to Hashem that the fear and worry should lift. When we have a distressful emotion it is really Hashem speaking to us, calling to us to return to Him. For this reason, the instant we remember Hashem and turn to Him for assistance, we often find that the intensity of our emotions decreases.
But, this can only happen when we truly believe that Hashem loves us, is really listening to us, and wants more than anything to give us good. And that can only happen when we truly believe in the intrinsic good within ourselves.
In short, life will always be filled with challenges– sometimes big, sometimes small. The key to staying calm and positive in challenging times is doing what we can to seek out and connect to the Source of simcha– to Hashem and the hidden light within ourselves and those around us and the situations we find ourselves in.