A Time For Now
Time moves differently in quarantine. I sleep with my window open, letting in the light from the street. I wake up looking outside, taking in the bright grey of Glasgow from my bed. I often lie there for a while, after waking, taking in the prospects of another day at home. I go to sleep at night looking out the same window, trying to recollect how many nights I've gone to sleep in quarantine, wondering how many more I'll go to sleep and wake up looking out at that same view.
It's April 14, 2020, and I've been in quarantine for 29 days. It's been alright, and I quite enjoy my time. It strikes me that this might be one of the longest stretches that I've stayed in the same city for the past five years. Without a car or use of public transport, I've only ventured as far as my feet can take me.
I spend most of my time in the living room. In the mornings I sit outside on the front driveway. In the afternoons, the sun hits the backyard more. I've gotten creative in my uses of other parts of the house. For example, when it's raining lightly, I open the front door and sit in the entranceway, looking out to the street with coffee and a book. Just today I discovered that if I open the window in the upstairs hallway, I can sit on the windowsill and dangle my feet over the yard below.
I walk a lot. I pass my friends' houses and chat for a moment over their garden walls. I see people I know and smile at the recurring neighbours. I discover lots of things around the neighbourhood - architectural details I've walked past hundreds of times but never stopped to look at. I've taken to visiting the cemetery at the end of the lane, with its beautiful cherry trees and crumbling gravestones. Scotland is in bloom, and manicured gardens are shaded in purple and yellow.
I fill my days, yet I still find myself looking out the window every night as I fall asleep, content, yet in the same situation I was in yesterday, and will be tomorrow, and the day after.
Often I'll speak to someone and they won't know what day it is. "Is it Monday, Wednesday? Who cares, it's all the same." Only it's not. Jews have this schedule built into our lives, and it's not something that gets cancelled because of Coronavirus. This routine is not something that gets put off because of social distancing, or delayed because of an isolated workforce.
And so in the midst of furloughed workers and NHS strain and Boris Johnson in the ICU, I sat boiling my cutlery and scrubbing the inside of my oven in preparation for the Jewish holiday of Passover, or Pesach. Beginning on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Nissan, sometime between late March and early May, Jews spend eight days celebrating our freedom from slavery in Egypt by eating unleavened bread and partaking in a ritual Seder.
While many people opted for Zoom Seders, run with their friends and family around the world, I settled into my living room for a four-hour solo seder. I've had my fair share of unusual Passovers (I spent two years working at a Pesach hotel in Florida, I've spent Pesach in a remote Indian village, etc.), but this one was definitely memorable.
One reason was that I could actually focus on the Seder. Even though we read through the text every year, I felt like I was encountering certain ideas for the first time. When the students come in to remind the Rabbis that they've talked all night and it's time for the morning Shema, I laughed out loud because it seemed so hilarious.
Here we are, in the midst of a global pandemic, and a bunch of ancient Rabbis are doing math equations trying to figure out whether the metaphorical value of the Ten Plagues is 50 or 250. We're dipping our pinkies in grapejuice and recalling Aramaic folktales about children and their pet goats. It seems bizarre. And yet it's oddly comforting to partake in timeless rituals - the way that Jews have practiced these rituals for hundreds of years, through tribulations far greater than our own.
I read the text in Hebrew, and then in English, then in Hebrew again, absorbing the meaning. I wasn't putting on a show for everyone. I wasn't rushing through to keep kids occupied and move on to dinner. I was going at my own pace, doing Seder for myself. I carried it out as a personal ritual. When I sang Avadim Hayinu, I felt like I was making a personal declaration for myself. I've sung that song so many times before - in school, with kids, at Seders past - but singing it out loud, alone in my living room in Thornliebank, it took on a whole new meaning.
This quarantine is having us return to basics - staying home instead of going out, making food instead of ordering, finding ways to keep ourselves occupied instead of relying on the outside world. Sometimes I just sit and watch people walk past on the pavement, feel the sun on my face, listen to the birds chirp, smell the flowers blowing through the breeze. I never had time for these things before. We're being forced to acknowledge the world around us. We're being forced to take the time.
Before Pesach it's a custom to burn our chametz, or bread products. In the past I've gone to friends and done it with them, or done more of a symbolic 'burning'. But being in quarantine with plenty of time, I went into the yard and burnt up bits of twig until I had enough of a flame for a proper bread-burning. I sat crouched in the yard, smelling the smoke, using my hands, reflecting on the holiday, the situation, the state of being alone. It was something that I wouldn't usually do, and it was quite nice.
Another reason the Seder felt so monumentous was because this is a moment in history. All around the world, Jews are celebrating Pesach alone, gathering strength from our traditions, which extend so far beyond the situation we currently find ourselves in. I think a lot of the frustration with this pandemic comes from its unpredictability, and the fact that we don't know when it will end. Some people say that we'll be holidaying by June, while others say schools won't open until January. Nobody knows, and that's really scary.
In the Pesach Haggadah, we read:
וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ. שֶׁלֹּא אֶחָד בִּלְבָד עָמַד עָלֵינוּ לְכַלּוֹתֵנוּ, אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ, וְהַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מַצִּילֵנוּ מִיָּדָם
And this is the promise that was made to our ancestors and to us. That not only one will stand against us to destroy us, but in each generation, many will stand against us to destroy us, and G-d saves us from their hands.
It's a comforting thought to see the bigger picture. Even though every day starts and ends the same, and the days seem to drag on into endless stretching weeks, there must be some perspective that we just don't see. When I look out my window, I'm not just staring out at the prospect of another day in quarantine. I'm staring out at the world beyond, and the endless possibilities.
Judaism teaches us that things aren't always what we want, but they're always for the best. It's not always convenient. Keeping Shabbat isn't always easy. But when I want to go out on a Friday night, or keep eating chametz when it's Pesach, Judaism comes in to show us the bigger picture. I'd love to be travelling the world right now, taking advantage of living in Europe, and the fact that I can't might be frustrating. I'd love to be celebrating Pesach in the homes of my amazing friends, instead of socially distant catch-ups over garden fences. But Judaism comes and says, 'It's okay, now is the time for something else.'
I want to finish with an excerpt from chapter three of the book of Kohelet, or Ecclesiastes. As we go into the final days of Pesach, I'm grateful for the tools which Judaism gives me, and the richness it brings our lives. I'm grateful for the meaning it provides, the background and reason for all of the things that we encounter.
Everything has an appointed season, and there is a time for every matter under the heaven.
A time to give birth and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to uproot that which is planted.
A time to kill and a time to heal; a time to break and a time to build.
A time to weep and a time to laugh; a time of wailing and a time of dancing.
A time to cast stones and a time to gather stones; a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing.
A time to seek and a time to lose; a time to keep and a time to cast away.
A time to rend and a time to sew; a time to be silent and a time to speak.
A time to love and a time to hate; a time for war and a time for peace.
לַכֹּ֖ל זְמָ֑ן וְעֵ֥ת לְכָל־חֵ֖פֶץ תַּ֥חַת הַשָּׁמָֽיִם
עֵ֥ת לָלֶ֖דֶת וְעֵ֣ת לָמ֑וּת עֵ֣ת לָטַ֔עַת וְעֵ֖ת לַֽעֲק֥וֹר נָטֽוּעַ
עֵ֤ת לַֽהֲרוֹג֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִרְפּ֔וֹא עֵ֥ת לִפְר֖וֹץ וְעֵ֥ת לִבְנֽוֹת
עֵ֤ת לִבְכּוֹת֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂח֔וֹק עֵ֥ת סְפ֖וֹד וְעֵ֥ת רְקֽוֹד
עֵת לְהַשְׁלִ֣יךְ אֲבָנִ֔ים וְעֵ֖ת כְּנ֣וֹס אֲבָנִ֑ים עֵ֣ת לַֽחֲב֔וֹק וְעֵ֖ת לִרְחֹ֥ק מֵֽחַבֵּֽק
עֵ֤ת לְבַקֵּשׁ֙ וְעֵ֣ת לְאַבֵּ֔ד עֵ֥ת לִשְׁמ֖וֹר וְעֵ֥ת לְהַשְׁלִֽיךְ
עֵ֤ת לִקְר֨וֹעַ֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִתְפּ֔וֹר עֵ֥ת לַֽחֲשׁ֖וֹת וְעֵ֥ת לְדַבֵּֽר
עֵ֤ת לֶֽאֱהֹב֙ וְעֵ֣ת לִשְׂנֹ֔א עֵ֥ת מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְעֵ֥ת שָׁלֽוֹם