Torah Texts and Togetherness: Family Life in the Time of Quarantine

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When life becomes disorienting, I look for frameworks that feel familiar to serve as an anchor as the ground beneath me shifts. Often, they come from our sacred texts, and act as a way to situate my own personal experience within the larger narratives of our community. Sometimes I attach to grand, epic narratives, at other times, more obscure and intimate ones.

So when my teenage children emerged Tuesday night from their 14 day mandated quarantine, to get some fresh air, meet some friends and encounter the world with fresh eyes, only to return inside the next day following a NYC-wide plea to stay home (not yet a mandatory shelter-down, but who knows what is coming), my mind kept wandering, thinking of which story this was going to be. An epic plague of Biblical proportions? Sacred temples abandoned? Rampant poverty with prophets anxiously reminding us not to forget the widows and orphans? No. These would not work to get me through the many weeks ahead.

After a few days at home, with four children ages 5-18 and my partner and I all trying to find our sea legs in these unchartered waters of a new, perplexing reality, I attached instead to the Talmudic narrative (Berakhot 33b) of the second century Talmudic sage R. Shimon bar Yohai and his son hiding from the Romans in a cave. While the details of the experience are quite different, the level of intimacy in the cave is what draws me in. 

While inside, R. Shimon bar Yohai and his son are sustained by a miraculous carob tree and a spring of water. They sit covered in sand up to their necks, studying Torah, only emerging from the sand to pray. They live this way for thirteen years.

The simplicity and the intensity of the familial relationship and bonds forged over study and prayer is what I now feel forming around me, in the cave that is my home. As my partner and I are both educators, our home has always been a place of study and learning, and creatively accessing the texts that drive us. But at this moment, it feels more critical than ever. Right now, we are at once part of a global Jewish beit midrash community and also a deeply personal and intimate one. There are iPads that serve as portals for tefilla, Macbooks through which the pages of the Talmud are turned, phones that serve as virtual batei midrash, and windows and porches from which to share thoughts and ideas with neighbors. We are – in a great place of privilege – able to be connected through these channels to thousands of others. We hear their voices, see their faces, lift one another in song, make berakhot and give tzedakah together and challenge one another through our ideas and writings. And at the same time as being part of this universal learning experience, we are also in such close physical and existential proximity to our children, that we not only hear their Torah being learned, we feel it in our bodies. It is like we are covered in the sand – father and son, mother and daughter, parent and child – enveloped and embraced in sacred words. 

Of course, the ideal of the peaceful cave of study is pierced with the sounds of toddlers crying as they plea to go to the park; the tranquility of an image of solitude is punctured by chaos and flying sheets of paper – math homework, bills, college essays, book drafts to edit; until the miraculous carob tree and water emerge, we are met instead with a steady stream of dishes to wash, groceries to procure, trash to compost; emotions run high and the intensity of experience leads to navigating new rubrics of sharing space; finding a fragment of quiet feels like a miracle. 

But keeping the framework in mind provides an image of intimacy that I feel grateful to aspire to. After a few days, schedules seem to be setting in, norms are adjusted, expectations lowered, children rise to the challenge, stepping up with unsolicited acts of kindness and help, those which the situation demands. The walls are adorned with the words of first grade Torah, the halls filled with the sounds of nursery tefilla, the den decorated with high school mishmar schedules and extra learning opportunities, the attic a place through which graduate seminars in Jewish studies are conducted, and my porch, an oasis to work on building an online torah study platform. Our cave is being molded around us. It is what will sustain us through the next short while until Elijah the prophet tells us that it is safe to go out.  

As the narrative continues, we are told that when R. Shimon bar Yohai emerged, he could not look at the world without burning it up with his eyes. Such intensity of experience resulted in an intolerant viewpoint. A heavenly voice sends him back to the cave. 

When we emerge from the cave, God willing in good health, and into a world that is more kind, more gentle, more fractured and vulnerable but also more connected, let us be blessed to take the intensity of our personal experience and use it to spread more torah, more tefilla, more love and light to a new reality and a world that we will look at through different eyes. 

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Shira Hecht-Koller is an educator, attorney, and writer. She is currently Director of Education for 929 English, a platform for the daily global study of Tanakh and is a faculty member at Drisha, where she teaches Talmud and designs immersive text study experiences. She has taught at SAR High School and practiced corporate intellectual property law at Debevoise & Plimpton, LLP. She teaches, writes and speaks on topics of Bible, Jewish law and creative living. She is also a graduate of the Bruria Scholars Talmud Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum and holds a certificate from M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. She is an avid tennis fan, an amateur photographer, and more than anything, she loves learning about and exploring the world with her husband Aaron and children Dalya, Shachar, Amitai and Aiden.