Lessons on COVID-19 from Reb Nachman of Breslov

Lessons on COVID-19 from Reb Nachman of Breslov

by Tracey Kite, LCSW

It is easy to read and listen to the news and feel that the world is ending.  The media and government need us to stay home and isolate (or go out and risk our own health).  Our economy seems on the brink of collapse. In the process our anxiety is raised to new heights.  Our old world feels like it has ended.  The world, however, has not.

Throughout history, as humans spread across the world, infectious diseases have been a constant companion.  Even in this modern era, outbreaks are nearly constant.[1] The Jewish community has lived through those times.  We can learn from the past. 

Our current pandemic is one of a long line of pandemics.  It challenges us as individuals, families and communities.  Our task is to focus on now, and not on an unknown future.  What is the next “right” thing that you need to do?  Take a shower? Wash the dishes? Turn off the TV? Reach out for help? Call someone?  Reb Nachman of Breslov taught, "You are wherever your thoughts are, make sure your thoughts are where you want to be."  Each of these activities will help you focus on today.

Families, individuals and communities are being forced to redefine the ways they connect.  You might be feeling very isolated and alone, the only one in your house.  If you are living with multiple family members, you might be craving alone time.  Both are normal and expected.

Connecting to community takes extra effort during our “stay at home” mandate.  Your synagogue may be broadcasting services online, making the oneg shabbat (gathering after the Shabbat service) harder to experience.  A class you take or a group you belong to may now be virtual.  You may need to pick up a phone and call someone to connect.  Know that reaching out to others is a mitzvah, and make sure you do it at least one time each day.

"Grant me the ability to be alone, May it be my custom to go outdoors each day among the trees and grasses among all growing things and there may I be alone, and enter into prayer to talk with the one that I belong to." This teaching from Reb Nachman of Breslov emphasizes several tools important for this time.  One is to get outside.  Yes, it is still a cold Chicago spring, but changing your environment by going outside (and staying away from other people, except to wave) will brighten your perspective.  Walking will also raise your mood (exercise is how your body creates anti-depressants). The next part of the teaching is to be alone.  If you are in close quarters with many family members, figure out how to carve out some quiet alone time.  It is good to let others know that you need some alone time and then to take it – go into another room or go outside by yourself.

And, finally, honor your feelings.  This is a frightening time with many unknowns, and everyone is out of sync with their normal routines.  Reb Nachman of Breslov also taught that, “It would be very good to be brokenhearted all day, but for the average person, this can easily degenerate into depression. You should therefore set aside some time each day for heartbreak. You should isolate yourself before God with a broken heart for a given time. But the rest of the day should be joyful.”  This teaches us to honor (and express, through prayer, sharing, journaling or art) all of our feelings, but to limit time spent focusing on the darker ones. 

If you struggle to move your thoughts from your fears and apprehensions, Reb Nachman has yet another piece of advice: “Get into the habit of singing a tune. It will give you new life and fill you with joy. Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.” So sing out – join the thousands in Italy who are singing from their balconies, and finding community in that way.  Find your community – and remember that you are not alone.