Opinion: This Passover, relearn to swim

With vaccines against Covid-19 more readily available, we are beginning to see the light at the end of this dark tunnel. Yet the answer goes beyond this new reality.

In an inspirational book, “Floating Takes Faith,” Rabbi David Wolpe distinguishes between swimming and floating. Swimming involves using hands and feet, sometimes vigorously, to withstand the currents and move forward. Floating takes less effort, but more trust. It involves believing in the capacity of water to keep one buoyant.

Depending upon one’s circumstances, the metaphor can take on different meanings. For me, it relates to the broader concepts of giving and receiving.

As a spiritual leader, I have often taught that the cornerstone of love is the capacity to give. It is not only that one gives to a person one loves, but from giving comes love. Behavior impacts feelings.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand that receiving, too, is an art. It involves recognition of limitations that can only be “fixed” by another. Here, the receiver is vulnerable, not knowing if the need will be met.

When the pandemic hit, I instinctively continued acting as I always have — trying to “show up” when needed. Until one congregant, from his hospital bed, respectfully said, “Thank you rabbi for visiting, but please, with Covid everywhere, stay out of my room.”

Meanwhile, my son, Dov, lovingly but firmly warned, “Abba (father), this crisis is real. If you continue to go out, you will die.”

It was then that Rabbi Steven Exler, my successor at the synagogue that I served for over four decades, asked me to do a video message cautioning congregants, especially seniors my age, to stay home. I agreed.

What followed was one of the most difficult challenges of my life — to become a floater. It wasn’t only that I felt deep sadness that I could not be with others, but together with my wife Toby, we became reliant on those who shopped for us and stepped in to provide our basic needs.

Yes, all of us are in the same storm, but, as a poet wrote in the beginning months of the pandemic, we are all in different boats.

And, in my boat, I had to recognize that I could not fend for myself. It was not simple. I went into a funk, close to a depression. With the encouragement of my wife, I reached out to a mental health professional, who prescribed an antidepressant medication for the first time in my life.

In time I came to recognize that even while receiving, one could still give. The great Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai makes this point when he writes that he disagrees with Ecclesiastes, which says there is a time for everything — “a time to love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.” It’s rare, Amichai suggests, that life can be so categorized, as most often emotions and realities mix. One can “make love in war and war in love,” he writes.

And so, even while homebound, I did my best to give — calling others who had fallen sick, Zooming into the classes I was teaching and even joining the US AstraZeneca clinical vaccine trial. I told myself to appreciate the blessings that God has given me, and not focus on the blessings I did not have. Still, it was all difficult, as I felt a fraction of myself.

Now, a year later, I’ve been fully vaccinated. We are being told that people can gather with others who have also been vaccinated, including indoors. I can even return to synagogue, wearing a mask.

And yet I hesitate. It’s not easy to learn to swim again. Friends and congregants have told me that they, too, face a similar challenge.

It’s understandable. 2020 was a year of unspeakable devastation. Not only have millions around the world died, but so many of those have died alone. The economic, emotional and social impact will be felt for decades.

It was also a loss of the normalcy that we took for granted: walking about without masks, in-person doctor’s appointments, shopping in the local market, attending concerts and sporting events.

Whenever there is loss, it takes time to recuperate — to come back. The Jewish laws of bereavement make this point, suggesting an intense seven days of grieving, followed by a less intense 30 days and then a year of diminishing mourning. After that, while the loss continues, the mourner can often make her or his way forward.

But if ever we are going to come out of this, it requires that we believe in the science. At the outset of the crisis, it was especially important for seniors to follow the rules and stay home. Now, we must believe in that same science that is telling us that vaccination will be our way out.

The essential workers, our heroes, did their share in helping us float. Now, to live fully, we must do ours.

Passover is the holiday of the spring, the holiday of redemption and new beginnings. The time is ripe to focus on giving, to learn to move our limbs again, our fingers, our toes, our arms and our legs.

To relearn to swim.