There’s a stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, between Lebanon and Reading, that I always seem to drive at night, when my family has fallen asleep in the car, and our road-trip playlist has returned to Ingrid Michaelson’s “Keep Breathing.” You may know the song, with the spiraling crescendo at the end that goes, “All I can do is keep breathing,” a dozen or more times, as I hurtle through the darkness. If you don’t, click the link and let it play while you read the rest of this piece.
That is what these past three weeks have felt like. We are hurtling through the darkness, “people are dying, but I close my blinds,” and all we can do is keep breathing. The breathing, and its continuation, are the bar for success. Anything else is a bonus at this point.
The last morning I was able to physically sit in synagogue, before we shuttered our doors for the forseeable future, I noticed something strange in the prophetic reading (haftarah). It was the word, neshama, the word for soul, a word that derives from the Hebrew root n-sh-m, breath.
Except that the word wasn’t translated as breath, or soul, or anything like it. The passage, Ezekiel 36:34, reads, V’ha-aretz ha-neshama te’aved tachat asher hayta sh’mamah l’eynei kol over: “And the desolate (neshama!) land, after lying waste (sh’mamah) in the sight of every passerby, shall again be tilled.”
What has this mad prophet done with this beautiful word, I thought. Already the schools were closed, the Bay area was on lockdown as were the entire countries of Italy and Spain and Wuhan province in China. The predictions of a death toll rivaling the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, with its 60 million lost neshamot, suddenly sounded realistic, and the idea of a desolate soul being laid waste wasn’t so far-fetched.
When the world stops moving entirely, when nothing can continue as it was, the things in life which feed the soul are missing, particularly the ability to be close with other souls. When every other living being is a potential danger, things are desolate indeed. And when one ventures out into the streets of Pittsburgh, or any other major city under a “stay-at-home” order, one sees a land “lying waste in the sight of every passerby.” All we can do is keep breathing. Breathing in the desolate waste, hoping it will again be tilled one day.
The conditions for that tilling, however, are faith, repentance, and repair. We don’t get to just decide to go back and till the desolate waste and expect crops to sprout abundantly. We have to work for it. Another prophet, Jeremiah, predicted, as the Jews were still in the process of being exiled from the land by the Babylonians, “Houses, vineyards and fields will again be purchased in this land.” But he meant seventy years thence, not the next day. Things had to happen, conditions had to change, before that could happen.
So it is in this desolation. We cannot be as we were before, and expect to do anything other than keep breathing. If our desolate souls are to be restored, it will take patience. It will take turning back to a value system that places human life, and reducing human suffering, at the top, not a humming economy or efficiency or profit. It will take a determination that if human lives are to be sacrificed, it will be to save or defend other human lives, a cost of a few to save many more, not for the sake of any false gods we might choose to elevate.
I say this as the phrase, “we don’t want the cure to be worse than the disease,” continues to circulate, almost as contagious as the virus itself, and nearly as malignant. I am a doctor. I don’t need to be told that some cures are worse than the disease. I have seen chemotherapy ravage a person’s immune system, rendering it sh’mama, in ways that the cancer never could have done. I have felt ribs disintegrate as I tried futilely to resuscitate someone already too dead for reviving. I have listened to dialysis patients declare their preference for an impending death to months or years more of the malaise and monotony of returning thrice-weekly to the dialysis center.
But when the disease threatens to claim the lives of one in every 200 people on the planet, what cure could possibly be so horrible as to say, “We’ve engaged in a thoughtful, risk-benefit analysis and decided it’s not worth it?”
All we can do is keep breathing. The time to till and allow our desolate souls to bloom again will come. When it does, I pray that there will be many more souls there to enjoy that moment than would otherwise have been present if our soul neshama had never encountered the desolation.