This past weekend, my children and I watched the movie Groundhog Day. I suspect I was reminded of this movie because of the feeling of deja vu (some might say PTSD) that we are experiencing: COVID-19 infection rates are surging again and strictures to prevent the spread of the virus are back. In the movie, Phil, an entitled and cynical TV anchor played by Bill Murray, re-lives Groundhog Day/February 2 over and over again. He wakes up every morning at 6:00AM to Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” on the radio and, with each hour that passes, experiences the same encounters he did the day before.
While Phil rides on the wild side for a while, he eventually realizes that, though he is stuck in time, he is not frozen in the same choices or behaviors: The daily repetition is not in fact inevitable and he has the potential to live a different kind of day. He can even live a different kind of life centered on generosity, love, and commitment. It’s as if Phil takes Maimonides’ dictum from the Mishneh Torah that says complete teshuvah, repentance, is to return to the same circumstances and to make a different choice (in Phil’s case, literally minute by minute). And even though we seem to be going through our own Groundhog Day, we can follow the same guidance: While this pandemic has wrought incredible devastation, death, and the exposure of profound inequities in our society, it has also shined a light on the way we live and the agency we have to make change, and it has challenged the notion that the way it is now is the way it has to be.
While I believe wholeheartedly in our individual and collective power to make change, I also carry the deflation, exhaustion, and despair that sinks in deep with the arrival of the COVID-19 omicron variant. Months of progress and opening up have disappeared so quickly. The question looms: Will we ever find our way out of this pandemic?
The Israelites in this week’s parashah, Shemot, cry out in pain from their bondage, wondering if their enslavement will ever end. God hears their cry and takes notice of them. Following this moment, Moshe encounters the burning bush:
וַיֵּרָא מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה אֵלָיו בְּלַבַּת־אֵשׁ מִתּוֹךְ הַסְּנֶה וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה הַסְּנֶה בֹּעֵר בָּאֵשׁ וְהַסְּנֶה אֵינֶנּוּ אֻכָּל׃
An angel of God appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. (Shemot 3:2)
According to the Sefat Emet, God appears to Moshe as a fire that isn’t consumed in order to illustrate that while certain fires can burn and singe, they don’t ultimately destroy. God wants Moshe and the Israelites to understand that though they were suffering at the hands of the Egyptians, they will survive. God wants Moshe to see beyond the pain of the moment and to have faith that they will make it through.
We human beings can feel profoundly vulnerable at times, wounded by what life foists upon us and what we inflict on ourselves. Sometimes, we feel this to the point that we lose perspective. We can’t imagine anything beyond the current reality; it feels as if we are revisiting the same story day after day. Yet we have the incredible capacity to be resilient and to transform. We have been bequeathed this wisdom from our tradition.
As the days begin to get longer, with the beginning of a new book in the Torah this week, and on the precipice of a new year, may we acknowledge the burns we feel and the burdens we carry. And, just as God reminds Moshe with the burning bush, may we be reminded of our faith and our ability to persevere, to remember how together we can carry each other through (even at a distance). We will not be consumed by this. The time will come when we will find our way through. May it come soon and in our day.