Finding our bearings in this surreal moment

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon

By Rabbi Seth D. Gordon


My most vivid surreal experience was on Sept. 12, 2001, or 9/12. We then lived on Long Island, about 45 minutes from the World Trade Towers in Manhattan. We saw the news the day before — an airplane had hit one of the buildings. What happened? Some terrible accident. Then reports of a second, and it slowly dawned on us that it was deliberate. The true effects would ripple — who died, who made it out alive, who was missing? What would be next? The dust and the rescues and the disease. Along with the horrific events in Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania, the entire nation shared terrible hours and days. But, I believe, if you lived in the New York metropolitan area, it was worse. We knew people, or people who knew people, who were directly affected.

But my surreal moment came on 9/12 when I looked out the window from my bedroom. “Everything has changed; nothing has changed; everything has changed; nothing has changed,” the ping-ponging of these words — irreconcilable opposites — went on for seconds and seconds, over and over.

Last week a different surrealism came, and yet, the same thoughts come to my mind. There is this mysterious coronavirus that has forced much of our country to shut down; the word “coronavirus” will become a permanent part of our vocabulary, the time a living memory for a generation or two and will then be given space in the history books. Coronavirus is around us, but I know no one who has contracted it. Here and there, I hear about someone who may know someone who may have been in contact with someone. It is near, yet far. Surreal.

The statistics — many infected, many dead, more today than yesterday, we see the numbers increase on the news — from Italy, Iran, now France, Germany and Greece — and yet, good news — the reported numbers from China are stabilizing and subsiding. In Israel 1,238 people have been infected, as of mid-day Monday (March 23), but only one death so far, baruch ha-Shem

Here, the numbers grow, and yet compared to the average victims of the flu, still relatively few. But all agree, the numbers will grow, and grow more. No one knows when it will end. Surreal.

We are sealed in our homes but venture out for necessities like groceries. But I saw, surreal again, bare shelves at Trader Joe’s and partially bare at Dierbergs, as if we were in a third-world country. Many are working from home. I can do my work —phone calls, writing, studying — but others are out of work. 

I watch the news, including the volatile but plummeting stock market, up and down and down, then up, then down and down. Where will it end? The government is speaking about trillions of dollars, that is a capital “T,” to replenish the evaporation of money and provide people and key industries with funds to pay their bills. Where will it end? The economy was at its best ever (unemployment, stock market, inflation) just a few weeks ago, and due to some invisible (to the naked eye) bug from China, is now staggering like a boxer who has been punched in his gut and then his head. Surreal. 

There is TV — movies, shows, news, etc. But live entertainment, throughout the nation, has remarkably closed. Broadway, local plays, concerts and movie theaters — all closed. Sports: NCAA basketball cancelled March Madness; the NBA and the NHL have each “suspended” its season; MLB has “delayed” its opening; and the opening of the NFL’s training camps are uncertain. So, too, postponed are horse racing (Kentucky Derby), car racing, and golf. Virtually empty are hotels and airplanes, bars and restaurants — each without time-conditioned income that they cannot recoup. Gyms are closed, making it difficult for many to maintain their fitness. And we cannot go anywhere — we cannot flee from the coronavirus — there is nowhere to go, not locally nor on the entire planet! The sudden social and economic change is truly stunning.

Colleges and universities within the United States and abroad were shut down or shifted to online classes. Voting was suspended in Ohio. 

Religious institutions are closed. At Traditional Congregation we have no daily minyanim, no Shabbat services, no classes (though we will soon be offering virtual learning). Funeral attendance is often limited to 10, if one can get there. Even shivah minyanim have been nixed, or severely limited. Who could have imagined? What will be of Pesach this year? Whose gatherings will be smaller, with fewer or no family or friends?

Yet, online opportunities are available, from learning to shopping, to delivery services. Some are even hiring.

So we will innovate. We will restructure. Our political leaders will cooperate in ways we have not witnessed in a long time. American industry will churn out food and medical supplies. Our electricity still works, and the technology it supports makes it possible for us talk to each other, even video across the world, as I have done with my quarantined children and grandchildren in Israel. 

Our healthcare providers, police and others — who risk their own health and well-being, and who are under-appreciated — will get us through this. Behind the scenes, our scientists and engineers will get the job done. Unsung support staff heroes will be the nuts and bolts that help us emerge. Who did I leave out?

This virus will surely pass, as did 9/11 — not without casualty, not without memory, but also not without improvements — but it will surely pass. We will be liberated from viral prison and from the anxiety of its threat; we will again, in health, go back to work. We will see the stock market rise and the number of infections fall. We will again open our universities, and again enjoy our sports and entertainment. We will again open our synagogues for prayer, study and communal bonding. We will.

We will go from surreal to real, whatever that is.

O God, hasten it soon.

Rabbi Seth D. Gordon serves Traditional Congregation.