The Pandemic in Light of Eternity

It’s still one day at a time.

Posted Sep 14, 2020

In a sense, psychiatrists are clergy with medical degrees. We comfort, we provide emotional support, much more than we write prescriptions. When we meet with clergy, we can speak the same language; when we comfort them, we’re comforting the comforters. I’ve experienced this similarity first-hand, since some of my patients are clergy. During this pandemic, they’re as stressed out as I am—but I have to be there to help them cope, get a grip, keep going when their congregants need nonstop empathy.

One of my patients is a rabbi. When he first presented years ago, he was an attorney for the local DA. He prosecuted people and locked them up. Now, looking back on that radical transformation, he refers to himself kind of jokingly—“Did you hear the one about the guy who sent you up the river and then prayed for your soul?” But back before he was Rabbi Dave, he had a serious problem. He hated his job. We’d talk about alternatives to criminal prosecution—maybe corporate work or academe—but they didn’t seem right. He wanted to be part of people’s lives, to help them at ground-level on a human scale. For a while, he volunteered with the Legal Aid Society, and thought he saw his future. But the pay was near nothing, and he couldn’t do it. So, after more discussion, followed by intense soul-searching and even conversations with some prison chaplains, he became a rabbi.

Rabbi Dave loves his work, and regards his second act as a privilege. He leads a prominent congregation, teaches the sacred texts, and is a recognized community leader. Until the pandemic, he looked forward to celebrating life cycle events: naming babies, conducting bar mitzvahs, marrying people. The funerals were hard to bear, but even those were part of life and its seasons.

Now, however, Rabbi Dave’s experience has changed. The sanctuary is closed, except for Zoom services where he’s alone on the bimah with the cantor. Maybe some congregants pray in front of a computer. Maybe someone has a prayer book and can sing along. It’s so dismaying. He feels diminished—a rabbi whose congregation is a mini-diaspora. There’s no energy; people can’t hold hands, sway, sing together. “I’m officiating, but over what?” After the service, no handshakes, hugs, wine and cake downstairs. “Five thousand years, and now this? Hey, I could try stand-up next—I’ll never know if they’re not laughing.”

It’s so Jewish to laugh through your tears. But it’s not funny. This year’s fundraising has nearly collapsed. When everyone saw everyone else put money in the plate, it was easy. But the effect can’t be duplicated on Zoom or by email. Besides, people are focused on their immediate families. Rabbi Dave tried to raise funds for COVID relief but, when you’re struggling yourself, you’re not inclined to be as generous.

Even scarier, the High Holidays are approaching. Normally, the whole congregation turns out—but where are they going to put 500 people? Nowhere, actually. “It tests your faith,” said the rabbi. Early in the pandemic, like a lot of clergy, he thought that religious observance would somehow go on. He’d even encouraged members to meet in small groups for prayer and study. “Oh, how naïve can you be?” he asked. “Jews are supposed to believe in science.” He was sure he’d made things worse. He was sure he’d made things even worse when he’d admitted a couple of mourners to a funeral and, a week later, they were admitted to a hospital with the virus. “This is magical thinking, not religion,” he said.

He named a dozen of his congregants who had suffered or died. One of those, a man named Robert had recovered, but was sure he’d infected his older brother and his father—both of whom had died. “He’s inconsolable. I should send him to you.” I’m feeling a bit burnt out, and my own father just had an operation, but I agreed to the consultation.

The stories kept coming. Here’s a sample: “I went to the hospital to visit a patient in our congregation. He was returning to work after the virus, and was still weak. On the stairs in his office, he fell backward and hit his is head. Blood everywhere. He broke his back.” Apparently, he will survive and get better, but may walk with a cane for the rest of his life. Punishment on top of punishment—and for what?

My problem is how to deal with someone whose existence is so consumed with others’ grief that his own grief becomes overwhelming. How, especially, do you help someone see that they’re doing the best they can when the grief all around them keeps escaping their capacity to address it? All I could say was that we’re all in this together, and that no person can be expected to bear more than their fair share of the burden.

Clergy believe that in times of great stress, it is their job to ensure that people remember to hold onto their faith, to view their predicament in the light of eternity. We are just passing through. Stuff happens. It will all work out—whether in life or in death. But how can you carry on with that job when people are living day to day, trying to hold it all together before it all flies apart in a million direction? Rabbi Dave didn’t know whether to include himself among the comforters or those needing comfort, no doubt both. He believed in some kind of Divinity, but he had a hard time seeing a divine purpose in any of this. He kept on going, but it felt rote, programmed, the product of a will not to let go rather than of a purposeful endeavor.

OK, so eternity is far away. I reminded him that, therefore, every day is precious and he should try to make the most of it. “Think of the people whom you’ve comforted. They needed you.” I wasn’t sure that he even heard me. He kept staring. “There are so many people. I can’t keep abreast of them.” So, we talked about what he should reasonably expect of himself. What can anyone reasonably expect of anyone now? Only to do their jobs, one day at a time, as seems best. I acknowledged that his guilt over encouraging people to worship in small groups, or admitting them to a funeral, was a real problem. “You were perhaps too zealous, too intent on being a good steward of the faith. Now you’ve learned that less can be more.” I added that we are all learning.

It’s hard for laypeople to understand what clergy are experiencing just now. We don’t live in a time when plagues are thought to come from God, and to be sent as punishment for our sins. They just happen. Often, they result because of human indifference to the natural world—to animal habitats, to the places where diseases are hatched and spread. They may result because we mismanage laboratories and hospitals. So, the clergy’s role is less defined. It is more that of talking people through their grief than of explaining why such a calamity has occurred. In this sense, it is not as clear-cut. It varies from day to day, from person to person. It requires empathy, grit, and a willingness to acknowledge that one does not have all the answers.

Like the rest of us, Rabbi Dave can only hope that, in the light of eternity, this too shall pass.