But ancient religions offer more than just familiar rituals. They also contain wisdom about being human that has been crowdsourced across the centuries, helping billions of people cope with adversity. There is a Jewish concept that feels particularly relevant in the covid-19 era: “hesed,” which means “lovingkindness.”
Hesed isn’t just an emotion; it’s a kind of action we take to help those who are struggling with illness, grief or emotional distress. And it’s tricky right now, because hesed traditionally is about being physically present for others. When someone is sick, we don’t just send a get-well card; we visit their home or hospital bedside. When someone dies, we don’t just send condolences; we’ll jump on a plane to make it to the funeral or the shiva in the days afterward, when Jews gather to support mourners.
An old Jewish story illustrates the power of hesed: Rabbi A gets sick. Rabbi B comes to visit him, takes his hand and heals him. Then Rabbi B gets sick, and another rabbi, Rabbi C, visits Rabbi B, takes his hand and heals him.
But if Rabbi B had the power to heal Rabbi A, then why didn’t he just heal himself? Why did he need Rabbi C to come and heal him? The answer: “A prisoner cannot free himself from prison.”
In the story, no words were spoken between these rabbis. When performing an act of hesed, the point is not just what we say. In fact, Jewish law directs shiva guests to wait for the mourners to speak first before addressing them. The law seems to anticipate people’s tendency to say unhelpful things to those who are grieving — “she’s in a better place now” or “you need to be strong for the kids” — and it instructs us to just keep quiet until we’re spoken to.
The best thing we can offer at such moments is not words or gifts but a “ministry of presence,” as chaplains call it — the simple act of just showing up, being there for others exactly as they are, and lovingly responding to their needs as best we can.
We all sometimes find ourselves confined in a prison of our own anxiety, pain or despair. And no one can ever fully be in there with us, understanding the exact way our chest has tightened or how our brain feels as if it has collapsed in on itself.
But if we’re lucky, someone shows up and points the way out, and we realize the path has been there all along, we were just too panicked or confused to see it. Or they help us see that the prison isn’t real, but of our own making, and we no longer need to keep locking ourselves away. And even if the other person cannot set us free, sometimes just having someone else there, fiddling with the lock or holding our hand through the bars, is enough.
Most of us seem to be Rabbi B during this pandemic, trying our best to support others but finding that we, too, are struggling. And while we can no longer physically be there like we used to, we can still be deeply present in each other’s lives. We can still extend a hand to someone on the other side of a window, placing palm against palm, separated only by a thin glass pane. We can still log on to Zoom and just keep each other company for a little while, talking only as much as we need to. We can still call someone we love, with a reminder: “While I can’t visit you right now, I’m always here, available anytime you need me.”
And we can find new ways to perform old rituals of lovingkindness in today’s socially distanced world. I recently heard about a synagogue where a beloved member passed away. Traditionally, after a funeral, Jews form a receiving line on either side of the mourners, showering them with condolences as they walk by, reminding them that they will be surrounded by their community every step of the way through their grief.
Unable to conduct this ritual, members of the community instead drove to the synagogue parking lot and formed two rows of cars. Then the family in mourning drove their car through, and everyone waved and blew kisses at them as they passed by, each in their separate cars, but together in their grief and love, reaching out their hands, none of them alone.