We need to name it. It’s a little scary out there right now.
The spread of the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19), which is deadly to a whole segment of our population, the long incubation and infectious time period, coupled with the lack of symptoms — all feels foreboding. When stores have empty shelves and large segments of people can’t leave their homes and the stock market crashes, we come to realize that much of what we take for granted in life is a structure built upon shifting sands. What we thought of as a state of equilibrium is only as stable as the surrounding environment would permit. In some ways, everything that is stable is something that is created. So, we need to name it — our fear and our anxiety. We need to name this sense of the chaotic looming over the next rise in the landscape of our consciousness.
Let’s name it, so we can conquer it.
In these scary moments you can become paralyzed or you can panic. The voice rises inside of you that says that chaos is the truth of the world, and you are not strong enough or capable enough to overcome this challenge. Your dreams don’t count; your life matters not. This is a voice that can humble even the boldest among us. But if we let it shout too loudly, then rather than just humbling us, it hobbles us. It can even enslave us, like a ghostly Pharaoh with whip in hand.
The most heroic act, the rabbis teach, is the one who can conquer the Pharaoh within, telling you to be afraid and to succumb to your baser instincts. (Avot 4:1) The only way to overcome our fear and anxiety is to name it and put some daylight on it. Every moment of fear is also a moment of opportunity. Every moment of anxiety, where doors look closed and you feel shut in, is also a moment to open the windows of your own heart. These moments, as hard as they are, can also be opportunities to become stronger and kinder, to reinvent yourself and to create a world that can be better than the one you find before you. It’s the only way worlds are created, not by ignoring the chaos, but by building a world through and over it.
In the Torah, the world was chaos – dark and void. God shed light upon the deep, and divided the light from the darkness by naming it light and dark, and by choosing to look upon the chaos and making a world. It’s the most important choice in the Bible. God could have let the chaos stand on its own, but instead God chose to create. Confronting the darkness, God called upon the light, and the world came into being. And so it is with each of us at this moment. We can let the chaos stand or we can look upon the fear that is gripping us and cast light upon it. For it is through dark moments like this where we can choose to create something beautiful.
As we close the Book of Exodus this week in the parsha called Vakhel-Pekudei, we find the way forward. The Israelites were told to build the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting where the community gathers for prayer and conversation. But just as the moment of construction is to commence, the Torah pauses and gives us the laws of Shabbat. “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh, you shall have a sabbath of complete rest.” (Ex. 35:2) Just when things were about to get started, the Torah reminds us that our work is not everything, because what matters most is not that you work, but that you remember why you work.
How many of us live to work as opposed to working to live? With the kids being home or you being home, or everyone being home and no one allowed to go about business as usual, there is an opportunity to take stock of your life and ask yourself if the rhythm that I lived before, being busy and being away, is really necessary? For what purpose were all those trips, long commutes and forever-hours in the office? Can this time away from the office be an opportunity to reimagine what it is all for? Can we take the chaos that we feel and create a new world and new self out of it?
The Book of Exodus begins as a slave story. The Israelites were put into bondage and were forced to build palaces and cities for Pharaoh. It was his dream to build them, not the Israelites. In Hebrew this kind of work is called avodah. (Ex. 1:14) It means to participate in slavery. In fact, the word avodah applied as much to the task masters as it did to the Israelites, and as one commentator wrote, when tyranny takes control, even the Egyptian workers were transformed into slave drivers, teaching that slavery oppresses everyone under Pharaoh. (Ex. 1:13 Ibn Ezra) This is the harshest reality of slavery, that you are not your own person. You never pursue your own dreams, only the dreams of others without end.
Exodus begins in slavery, but now ends in freedom. The building of God’s house is never described as avodah, but melacha. (Ex. 35:2) Melacha is a word that describes labor of the free person building on their own hopes and dreams, echoing God’s own work in laying the foundations of the world. (Gen. 2:2) The word-echo is not an accident. When you read of the building of the Mishkan, you are to be reminded of God creating the universe. And where God looked out at the darkness and chaos and folded it into structure that makes our world wonderful, so can you.
While you are home and feel unsettled and even afraid, go ahead and ask yourself, what is the dream burning inside your soul right now? How can this moment of craziness be used to reinvent yourself? What if you embraced the idea of your dreams as your identity, and can build a world based on that?
There are Pharaohs without and Pharaohs within. As the Book of Exodus closes, we remember that going from being a slave to being free is not just a matter of liberation, but a choice to overcome the fear, and to look out into the darkness and say, “Let there be light.”