Unmasked: What Do We Look Like?

From the Anash.org inbox: “Our neighborhood has seen a miraculous turnaround, as the achdus we only dreamed of became the nucleus of so many activities. Once we have stretched, why would anyone want to shrink?

By Mrs. Cipi Junik for Anash.org

Masks are important these days. They protect us and others. But when we’re all alone, our masks come off. This can be an opportunity to take a good look at ourselves. 

As our community opens up, there is much talk about us becoming a new gegent (neighborhood). We can emerge from this crisis as bigger and better people than ever before. We have hopefully achieved a new growth mindset from navigating these difficult times. 

As life slowly resumes, the buzz words are the new normal. The question now is, “What is the new normal?” 

A Changing Neighborhood 

Someone once remarked to a Torah giant of the previous generation, “Nu, so Shavuos passed already.” Without missing a beat, the Rav replied: “Es iz nisht adurch gegangen; es iz tzugekumen. Shavuos didn’t pass; it remains within us.” So too, Covid19 has gone inside of us, not merely in the form of antibodies. It has permeated our spiritual DNA as well. And now the question is, what are we going to do with our heightened genetic makeup? 

As our gegent was stripped to its bare bones, without the multitudes of orchim who normally fill our neighborhood and enrich our lives, we were suddenly faced with what we look like as only OURSELVES

From behind our masks, everyone began greeting each other with “Gut Shabbos,” whether they knew one another or not. What social distancing has taught us is that we can be so far from someone and yet so close. The sense of belonging has never been stronger. 

We rediscovered our neighbors and craved friendship as social distancing separated us. We cried at levayos. We cried when people came home from the hospital. We cried at weddings. Perhaps the privacy that Zoom afforded us unleashed our true emotions. We learned something new about ourselves. Let’s not suppress it as we begin to interact once again in real life. We can’t afford to retreat into our old cocoons. 

Practically Speaking 

Human nature is paradoxical. When we go on a trip and everything goes smoothly without a hitch, we complain that it was too long and tiring. If chas v’shalom we get into trouble and escape by a hair, we are full of gratitude to Hashem. We bentch Goimel and share the great miracle that happened to us. Why wait for a challenge in order to appreciate Hashem’s kindness, which is earmarked on every living moment? 

Memory tends to be short. Inspiration and lofty language are abstract; they dissipate if we do not attach concrete action to them. How can our takeaways from this crisis have a lasting impact? It might be beneficial to mentally record the kindness that we were recipients of, as well as the chesed we performed for others. 

For the people sitting shiva during the pandemic, the support that came pouring in from all over the world was unprecedented. Did people have more time because of being quarantined? I think not. Everyone was struggling to make Pesach, with children underfoot and sans cleaning help. As we became more in touch with our neshamos, we began living on a different level. 

Our neighborhood took enormous hits, but it also took our tears and mobilized them into chesed. We donated the most blood, not only in the form of plasma, but in our mesiras nefesh for one another. 

Organizations that are often challenged by a lack of funds and manpower miraculously stretched to expand their chasodim. Volunteers cropped up from nowhere as people realized the myriad opportunities to be a “front-line worker” in fighting this pandemic. The Gedaliah Society provided physical help, medical guidance, and much-needed emotional support. For many, they were the lifeline to survival. The Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Bikur Cholim greatly expanded, creating many crucial services to meet the unique circumstances of the affected families. Ahavas Chesed stepped up providing much needed patient and family support in both the hospital and home. 

United as One 

Our neighborhood has seen a miraculous turnaround, as the achdus we only dreamed of became the nucleus of so many activities. Mosdos Chinuch now advocate for one another’s fundraising activities. Formerly competing schools have joined together, creating a camp to take care of all the children of the gegent

When members of a block found out that a Bar Mitzvah boy had no celebration, they sprang into motion and delivered the party to him, including a generous monetary gift. 

The United for Protection Sefer Torah and its outgrowth, the Hatzalathon, were pioneered by three members of our very own shechuna. They unified Klal Yisrael in a momentous way and raised an unprecedented sum of money to be distributed worldwide. 

The Rebbe’s campaign for Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach highlights our responsibility to promote darkei shalom between us and our non-Jewish neighbors. Blocks have now gifted their neighbors with tokens of appreciation for allowing porch minyanim to take place undisturbed. Their response: “Thank you for praying. Your prayers bless us too.” 

Changing the World One Act at a Time 

We have seen tremendous growth in our neighborhood. Once we have stretched, why would anyone want to shrink? 

We too can be the Benjy Stocks, Moishe Rubashkins, Devorah Scheiners, Devorah Benjamins, and others in our shechuna. Each of us can become an ambassador of chesed in our own individual way. The key is to start small but think big. 

Now is an opportune time to tap into the many needs of our community by starting our own personal projects. 

Even just a phone call, an errand, or a ride all have one common denominator: they convey to the recipient, “I am thinking of you.” There is no act of kindness too small if it effectively communicates this message. Our lives are Baruch Hashem becoming busier, but it takes only 30 seconds to send a personalized text which will make someone’s day. Greater awareness to the needs of another is what the new normal is about. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out because you are not sure what the right thing is to say to someone. Rabbi Shais Taub once offered this sage advice: “There are very few wrong ways to bring a kugel.” A tangible gesture of caring speaks volumes. 

Outreach Begins at Home 

The Rebbe declared “Uforatzatah” as our motto. However, “yamah vakeidmah,” spreading to the east, west, north, and south, doesn’t have to span the four corners of the globe to be effective. We can begin with the four corners of our neighborhood, and even with just the four corners of our block. What do we see with our new lenses that we have never really noticed before? 

There are many people who live alone. As a result of the pandemic, which has ripped couples apart, their numbers have suddenly grown. They need us. 

Every traumatic event has its mantra. Perhaps ours should be, “Act Now.” We are writing history. What do we want our chapter in this book to look like? How do we want to be remembered, as our actions and deeds write our own pages? 

Stepping into the Future 

The Beis HaMikdash was designed with steps that were irregular in size. This was not an architectural faux pas, but rather part of The Divine Plan. When one climbs the same steps routinely, it becomes automatic, as our feet do the work without much thought. When things are not regular, however, we need to concentrate in order to navigate carefully and safely. The kedusha of the Beis HaMikdash (may it be rebuilt very soon) must not become rote. Every experience should be a new one to be appreciated. 

We, too, are now climbing steps, albeit with unsure footing. We have no control over what the future brings, but we are in control of what we bring to the future. Life on autopilot as we knew it does not exist anymore. 

As Rabbi Simon Jacobson eloquently puts it, “We need to show up for life as the best version of ourselves.” Now is the time for each of us individually to reflect on exactly what that is. 

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