Permission to Breathe

by Rabbi Ilana Zietman / March 20, 2020

just breathe beach

On Wednesday night, during one of my weekly classes which I’m now doing online, I asked everyone to go around and share one word that best described where they were in that moment. Inspired by the very first question God asks humanity in the Torah—“Akyeka?” “Where are you?”—I asked a similar question in the hope of providing space for people to unload. 

The responses were not surprising: people are feeling overwhelmed, uncertain, scared, stir-crazy, tired, and done with screens. And a few were more optimistic; some said that they had “had a better day than yesterday,” or “Today, I’m a little more hopeful.” And as I spoke with people this week, I certainly heard a lot of gratitude and interest in being of service to the wider DC community. But more than anything, I heard shock, not knowing and pure exhaustion. 

Organizations, communities, and businesses are scrambling to respond to the rapid change in lifestyle and behavior that is social distancing. It seems like almost every sector of society, to the extent possible, transformed every service, class, and show into an online experience. From yoga to music to penguin tours around a deserted aquarium, we’ve all been bombarded by a whole array of ways to keep us occupied, entertained, and connected. This is certainly true in the Jewish world, which seems to have exploded with opportunities to pray, meditate, study and congregate online, GatherDC included. 

It reminded me a lot of this week’s Torah portion from the end of the Book of Exodus, Vayakhel-Pekudei. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, received the Torah at Mount Sinai, and now making their way through the desert with numerous bumps along the way, the Israelites finally begin to build their portable desert sanctuary, the mishkan, the place of God’s dwelling that would be the epicenter of their communal and spiritual life. 

But when Moses asks the people to contribute to the mishkan in this week’s reading, he doesn’t do so by command. Rather, he tells the people,

“Take from among you offerings, every person whose heart is willing, bring a gift to God.”

Unlike their forced building of Egyptian structures under slavery, the people are now told they can voluntarily contribute however their hearts move them to. And so they do. Men and women bring all kinds of materials to help build the mishkan, from jewelry and gold to hand-spun yarns, goats’ hair and the like. They bring so much that Moses eventually has to tell the people to chill and stop, even though all their enthusiastic giving was going toward a sacred cause. 

I think similarly, as much as we’ve seen an outpouring of incredible offerings—gifts, really—to those of us at home, there may be too much happening all at once. Of course, I’m not talking about tzedakah, volunteering or providing mental health resources— those we should continue to give in abundance. 

But among the plethora of ways to stay busy, I also see that we’re responding to this strange time by trying to keep things the same, especially in our work. We’ve dived into our homebound 9-5 lives head-on, some also with children to homeschool and parents to care for. I heard from some of you that your employers made a point to tell you they expect the same level of efficiency despite the fact that you’re working remotely. Some of you who could work remotely still have to go into the office because your bosses did not want to change their company’s workflow. And some, I know, are in the middle of a job search when this all started, or have suddenly lost a job. 

While of course, we have to figure things out, most of us, myself included, didn’t think to take a breath. Having not been through something like this before, we haven’t realized that in a time of crisis, we need a break, however much we can afford. Life is really scary right now. Adjustment to a new, difficult reality doesn’t happen overnight, so taking a breath and stopping is not selfish. 

In fact, it’s a commandment. Although most of this Torah portion is about all the work the Israelites did to build their sanctuary, the very first lines of the text contain the commandment to observe Shabbat: On six days work should be done, but on the seventh day, you shall have a sabbath of complete rest. Rashi, a famous medieval commentator, said that the Torah prefaced the instructions for the mishkan work with the commandment to keep Shabbat in order to teach the people that building a sacred space does not supersede rest. And we can understand why the people might have thought otherwise. 

Unlike our modern association with work, the sometimes stressful or demanding things we do to make a living, the Hebrew term here, melacha, means creative activity, like the voluntary crafting, designing and building that went into making a beautiful sanctuary. We can understand how, in doing such work that we consider sacred or important, we can become so driven to continue or complete it that we might deny any need to rest or replenish. Indeed, a few chapters earlier, when God first gave Moses all the instructions for how to build this mishkan, God concludes by saying,

Nevertheless [ach], you must keep my Shabbat,” or as Rashi puts it, “even though you are compelled by enthusiasm for the work, let it not replace Shabbat.”

Our ancient tradition intuitively understood that sometimes we need to be commanded to stop and take a breath because humans are really good at making excuses to constantly do things. We’ve seen a lot of that this week, both in our work work and in the creative work we’ve taken on to get through this time. I know, with the weekend, the gorgeous weather and cherry blossoms, we’ll be tempted to breathe by going outside, which is okay in true moderation, but I want to remind us that we’re still responsible for one another, so let’s be mindful of where we put our bodies and where we try to rest this Shabbat. 

In the words of Rabbi Elliot Kukla in yesterday’s New York Times

“Staying away from other people contradicts our image of what saving lives looks like. We are used to heroes rushing in. But disabled and sick people already know that stillness can be caring. We know that immune systems are fragile things, and homes can’t always be left. Rest is disability justice, and right now it is one of our most powerful tools to keep one another alive.” 

Given that our mobility will be limited, let our rest this weekend start by giving ourselves permission to breathe. Please, if and however you can, take a real break. Just be where you are emotionally and, yes, physically. We will be there to hold one another through this. 

This week’s Torah reading concludes the Book of Exodus, the book of taking our first steps to liberation, to a new and better reality, so I want to invoke the traditional blessing for getting through a whole book of the Torah and now, a whole week of social distancing: Chazak, chazak v’nitchazek: Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened. 


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Ilana




About the author: Rabbi Ilana Zietman is GatherDC’s Community Rabbi. She loves meeting new people and creating real and meaningful connections with them. When Rabbi Ilana isn’t officially Gathering, she can be found cooking in her kitchen, practicing yoga, going on hikes, desperately searching for good pizza in DC (seriously, help her find some!) and watching a lot of tv.






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