Beauty in the Bleak- Finding the Chesed in Corona
When I walked out of Misrad Hapnim with my shiny new Teudat Zehut, I had no idea that my first year in Israel would include Armageddon. As a Lone Bat Sherut, I was following a tightly laid out script with the usual challenges of a new language and social absorption. Anything else was more than I had planned for and was therefore null and void. Oh sure, I heard about the Corona Virus. This had nothing to do with me, however. This was an Other People Problem in faraway China and Italy. I closed my eyes as tourism gradually dwindled and people began to frantically buy face masks and hand sanitizer. I shook my head over the messages about Person X who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The borders slowly began to close and politicians began to speak about this being a pandemic and not being over by Pessach as we had hoped. Our ulpan teacher taught us the word “bidud” for the first time. Isolation. I still refused to acknowledge corona, despite its rapid approach. My plan was to neatly sidestep the virus, the same way I glossed over Hebrew words in documents that were too complex for me.
Everything changed on Election Day when I missed my train to Tel Aviv. After pounding my fists on the ticket counter in frustration, I resigned myself to waiting for another train, content that I would get a decent story out of the experience at least. I certainly got my wish. Unbeknownst to me, on that second train at 12:33, was a lovely French gentleman who was later diagnosed with COVID-19. That Saturday night, as I prepared to leave my Shabbos hosts, I received a frantic message to go into isolation immediately. That’s when it stopped being the Other People problem. Apparently, being a new immigrant did not grant me special status. I cannot adequately convey the overwhelming sense of panic that I felt. There I was, trapped in Ashdod, with nowhere to go, and no way to get there. I was unable to use transport or be in the same room as other people. Where minutes before I had been heading out the door, now I could no longer touch the door handle. I felt like a leper. My family was in America thousands of miles away, oblivious, in the middle of Shabbos. Worst of all, it was going to be Purim that week. This was early enough when being quarantined was still a novelty. I had no backup plan, no precedent to measure by. What was I going to do about Megilla? Which day of Purim was I going to keep now? It felt like being thrust into a dystopian nightmare.
I cried when my sister, who had been with me that Shabbos, left, knowing that I wouldn’t see her or another person for two weeks. I indulged in a bout of self-pity. Being alone in a new country was hard enough, I fumed in my silent room. Why now? Why me? I know you have a plan, G-d, I whispered in my Shacharit prayer. I just wish I knew what it was.
Yet, in the silence there was selflessness. People’s goodness inspired and humbled me. Every action created an interlocking chain of Chessed, stronger than all the antibacterial soap in the world. The family that I had stayed with for Shabbos didn’t bat an eyelid when I hesitantly told them I was now in isolation. Without a second thought, they took me in for two weeks and saw to my every need. They provided everything, from delicious meals three times a day to my favorite dark chocolate. On Shabbos, they set a beautiful table for me, on Purim they gave me a full seuda complete with wine and Shaloch Manot. They provided the highest level of Hachnassat Orchim. I had nothing and they gave me everything without ever compromising on my dignity. They were only the first. On Day 3, a young couple who lived next door called and asked me in broken English if there was anything they could do for me. I told them that I loved to paint and would love some white paper. That night, there was a bulging bag left outside my door filled with canvases, brushes, and pencils. I didn’t even know their names.
Every day I learned more about what it meant to give. Friends delivered packages, teachers from my seminary called and sent caring messages. My hosts held their adorable grandchildren up to the banister so I could see them. My roommates sent me candy and hilarious games to make me laugh. Expecting nothing on Purim, I was touched beyond words at the vast amount of Shalach Manot I received. Having arranged to hear Megilla over the phone, I naively assumed that I would be listening in on a regular communal leining. It was only when the Ba'al Korei reached the first “Haman” and I heard my lone banging on the table that I realized that this kind stranger was reading just for me.
I thought I had known how to do Chessed. Those two weeks I spent in solitary confinement, feeling more vulnerable than I’d ever been, showed me what a novice I was. Real kindness goes beyond indifferently tossing a coin in the Tzedaka box. It’s about truly putting yourself in the shoes of another person and thinking, what do they really need? What can I, with my unique gifts, talents and time contribute that no one else can? The chessed that was done for me then sweetened the solitude and filled me with optimism. As the world outside my window changed beyond belief, my faith in people increased.
I took these lessons back with me when my quarantine ended. When I went back to my empty Sherut apartment, the silence was deafening. At first, this was terrifying. How was I to adjust to a new normal when the world had stopped? The first Shabbos I was back, the neighbors organized complete meals for myself and the other Bnot Sherut. I heard music every night from the nearby Yeshiva, where weddings were held with minimal people but endless joy. Seamlessly, the community coordinated to help those who needed it most. Meals were organized for the elderly. Packages were picked up for those in quarantine. Again, I was reminded that in a new reality where the news worsened every day and loneliness was prevalent, people still had the power to amaze me with their goodness.
We’re still in lock down. It’s impossible to know what the future holds or where we’ll be in a month or even a week. I’m scared and have no answers. However, I’m encouraged by the Torah that is being studied around the world and the endless chessed operations that are still flourishing to the fullest capacity (and, of course, the memes). Someday soon, when we throw our masks off and step outside again to enjoy the sun, I’ll remind myself that at my lowest moments--even when Corona Virus might have forced me to be alone--I was never lonely.
Tehilla is from Johannesburg, South Africa, and is currently serving in Sherut Leumi at the Temple Institute in the Old city.