The U.S. death toll from COVID-19 approaches 200,000, and an upcoming presidential election lays bare Americans’ ugliest partisan divides and tribal impulses. It’s also a somber anniversary — the 9/11 attacks took place 19 years ago today. Everything feels overwhelming right now.
KCRW checks in with someone who’s been a calming and reassuring presence throughout these and other crises. Steve Leder is the Senior Rabbi of Wilshire Boulevard Temple and author of “More Beautiful Than Before: How Suffering Transforms Us.”
KCRW: We last spoke in late March. How have you been doing in these past six months?
Rabbi Steve Leder: “Like most, I have my moments of despair. And I occasionally drift into catastrophizing the future and have to work hard at pulling myself out of that. But ... this pandemic has forced me, and I hope many of us, to stretch our capacities for adaptation, for leadership, for empathy, far beyond anything I could have imagined before this thing began.”
How have you grown spiritually?
“This might sound odd coming from a rabbi, but I have fallen in love again with the wisdom of the sages of the Talmud and the Torah. They knew a good deal more than we about living through perilous and uncertain times. There is no aspect of it that they did not consider very thoroughly and carefully and deeply. And I find myself going back again and again and again to the writing and thinking and teaching of a group of scholars and sages who frankly lived during a time when life was always precarious and uncertain, when they had no reason not to expect that they would die from some strange frightening disease or flood or fire or murder, robbery, thuggery.
These were ordinary daily occurrences in the lives of people who lived 2000 years ago. And they developed an entire belief system to manage their lives and find meaning within all of it. And so for me spiritually, it's been a kind of reembracing of that wisdom.”
What are some of the things the sages have said that you’ve found particularly relevant for today?
“First of all, there's so much conversation about darkness as metaphor. Let's take for example, the 23rd Psalm. "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of darkness, I shall fear no evil." Two things have occurred to me about that verse. The first is the poet telling us we walk through this valley, we don't stay in it forever. That all things pass, and this too shall pass. And as trite and cliche as that sounds, I find it very comforting.
The second thing about that metaphor is if you think about a shadow, no matter how long, no matter how dark, a shadow is proof of light. You cannot have a shadow unless the light is still shining. It may be obstructed, in this case by a pandemic, but it still shines. It may be obstructed by our grief, by our feelings of loss, by our feelings of deprivation. But these feelings are really proof of our love of life, and the light that still exists. So in that sense, very, very comforting to me.
In another sense, you know that the high holy days are coming for Jews. And we recite this prayer, which is a kind of litany of terrible things that could happen to us and how we are supposed to respond and live during perilous times. And that prayer ends with three remedies to living through times like this.
The first is to really double down on our relationships with the people who matter. The second is to tend to our spiritual lives [and] tend to self care. And the third is to serve others. These are the ways we live through, walk through this valley of the shadow of darkness and come back out into the light.”
Being in a community means being with other people, but everyone’s in separate living quarters now and they’re social distancing. How are you negotiating that?
“I'm communicating every week with what I'm calling my Shabbat message, which I send out every Friday afternoon. … I started writing it when I thought stay-at-home meant … two weeks. I said, ‘I'll write a couple of articles for the congregation.’ Well, now I'm writing the 26th this afternoon.
So I send out a sermon every Friday afternoon. We are doing worship services online every Friday evening, every Saturday morning, every Saturday night. And people are getting used to it.
… Although we miss the energy of being with other people, it has enabled people who would not get into traffic on a Friday afternoon to come to the synagogue — the ability to participate and connect and be moved by these insights and this wisdom from our tradition. So in some way, the pandemic has created greater access, not less.
… We all have to make a decision. We either focus on the piece that's missing, or we focus on the beauty that remains. And I am very much encouraging people to stay focused as much as possible on the beauty that remains.
There's this concept in theology called the negative bonus. … Think about a sculpture for a moment. A marble sculpture began as a block of marble. And the beauty of the sculpture was always within that block of marble, but it wasn't revealed until the sculpture removed things.
I see the pandemic that way. It has removed, taken things away from us. And I'm not for a moment trying to dismiss the pain and suffering in what has been removed. But at the same time, when we remove certain things from our lives, it leaves some very beautiful things behind. And it creates the room, the vacuum for beautiful things to emerge.
… Now that I'm no longer running around on the 10 and the 405 [freeway] all day, I have more time to write, to think, to meditate, to pray, to walk. I'm discovering beauty in my neighborhood I never knew existed. I'm meeting neighbors whose names I never knew and frankly avoided before the pandemic. I’m spending more time with my wife and children, and more time with myself in a good way, in a thoughtful way.
So I think this is very much about focusing on the beauty of what remains and not on the missing piece.
And the other thing that's so important that I'm talking to people about is hope. We can live without many things. We can live without going to the restaurants, going to the movies, getting our haircut, getting our nails done, getting on airplanes. We can live without many things.
We cannot live without hope. We have to remain hopeful. This is going to end. The bottom is not falling out of the world. And that is so important to embrace. We always say life is short, but it really isn't true. Life is long, and our lives are long enough for us to get past this, and to grow from it, and to create more beautiful lives going forward because of the lessons that we are learning through this pandemic.
And I'll just share one other thought with you, which a friend of mine who had cancer three times, three different cancers, shared with me. I asked him, ‘What have you learned in this third cancer? What did you learn in the first two cancers that will help you in this third cancer?’ And he said, ‘Well, one of the things that cancer taught me is that time flies even when you're not having fun.’
Can you believe that it's been six months since we spoke in March about this pandemic? Can you believe that? It's staggering to me. Time flies even when you're not having fun.
We're going to get through this. We're going to be okay. And in some ways, we're going to be better than we were before, not in all ways. And again, don't misunderstand me. In no way am I saying that the lessons we're going to learn in the changes we are making are worth the suffering. I am merely saying they are not worth less. Let's make something of this. Let's not come out of this empty handed.”
— Written by Amy Ta and Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Brian Hardzinski