“The problem we have with society at the moment is everyone is afraid of making a mistake,” Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the health emergencies at the World Health Organization, opined late last week, as the coronavirus pandemic spread across Europe, with North America soon to come, if it hasn’t already. “Everyone is afraid of the consequence of error. But the greatest error is not to move. The greatest error is to be paralyzed by the fear of failure.”
A little more than 200 years earlier, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement (you’ve no doubt come across his followers’ impromptu dance parties and distinctive headgear if you’ve ever been to Israel), wrote the words that would eventually form the lyrics of one of modern Judaism’s most popular songs, Kol Ha-Olam Kulo. As Ryan spoke on March 13, I could hear it echoing in my head.
Composed during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 by Rabbi Baruch Chait, Kol Ha-Olam Kulo is just 10 Hebrew words long, and yet it speaks volumes about our people, our traditions and our history. “Kol ha-olam kulo,” the verse begins with a low, nearly monotone delivery, “gesher tzar me’od” – “The whole world is a very narrow bridge.” “Ve’ha-ikar,” the chorus responds in a soaring tune, “lo lefached klal” – “But the important thing is not to fear at all.”
When I learned the song as a child, my main takeaway was the advice of that chorus – to have no fear. The verse (hand motions and all) was simply a means to getting to that point. But as you get older, you begin to understand the power of those opening lines – you start to see just how narrow that bridge really is. You realize that that’s what gives the chorus such muscle – it’s not simply not to be fearful, but to achieve such a state, in particular, when we are most challenged.
So how do we do that? To start, we can listen closely to the advice of experts, in our community and beyond. What they have told us, in their words and actions, is that the spread of COVID-19 can be mitigated by “social distancing” and “self-isolation” – two terms we will be glad hopefully never to hear again after a few months. But in the meantime, it is the new reality – along with frequently washing hands, covering coughs and disinfecting surfaces – and the only chance at keeping our most vulnerable safe.
Our community organizations are responding in a clear and decisive manner, adopting models that can allow the Canadian Jewish community to function at a time when we aren’t even leaving our houses. Maintaining education levels, in particular, will require tremendous ingenuity, and families can help pick up the slack on that front. I was moved to see a former camp-mate’s suggestion on social media that Israeli and Diaspora families take the opportunity of being stuck at home to set up virtual “play dates.” I can’t think of a better or simpler way to keep Jewish children healthily engaged (and give Jewish parents a needed breather without all the guilt of YouTube) right now. In addition, reach out to family and friends – keep talking, keep laughing, keep calm.
I hope you won’t find it inappropriate if I end this week with a short prayer for our government and the health-care workers on the front lines, for anxious families, employees and business owners, for everyone, really. Take care of yourselves and stay safe. Be strong and be smart. And know that we will cross this bridge together.