“No honey, the birds are not louder than before.”
My daughter, like many others, was wondering why the chirping of the birds seemed so loud these days. I explained to her how the birds were not getting any louder, it was the world that was getting quieter. Fewer cars on the streets, fewer planes overhead, creating a quieter soundscape in which the otherwise subtle chirping of the birds can be heard quite distinctly.
It is not only the birds that we hear more clearly these days. Many of us are experiencing our thoughts and feelings far more intensely than usual. The New York Times had an article on the topic of world leaders crying in public, a common occurrence these past two months. Of course, a global pandemic is a good reason to be more scared, anxious, and even more angry than usual. But it is not only the negative emotions that have been intensified. Feelings of hope, love, and inspiration have been amplified as well.
The novelist and poet, Jason Reynolds, once quipped that ‘People always love people more when they’re dead.’ It is a cynical statement with a kernel of truth. The emotions we feel towards our loved ones when they are no longer living is far more powerful than when they are. It could be because our minds play tricks on us and we only remember the positive memories. But I would like to suggest another reason that I will call raw ratzon.
Ratzon is Hebrew for desire or will. The mystics see our desires as the highest part of our existence; what we want to do or who we want to be is who we really are. But we Jews are a practical people and we are asked to constantly express our will into action. It is not enough to respect our parents; we are asked to feed and clothe them. It is not enough to love our fellow Jew; we are asked to lend him money and return his lost object. It is not enough to love God; we are asked to do the Mitzvot to express that love. The purpose of these actions is to make our feelings more concrete by expressing them in the physical world. However, something gets lost in the process. Like when you try to share a powerful feeling or experience to a friend and the friend cannot fully grasp the depth of what you are trying to convey, so too your actions are never full expressions of your thoughts. They always fall short. And so, paradoxically, actions are needed to make our feelings more real and yet, in transforming our feelings into action they are diminished.
There are times when we cannot transform our feelings into actions, such as expressing our love to one who is no longer with the living. We wish we could hug them, kiss them, and spend time together, but we cannot. In such a case all we have is the powerful feelings that well up inside, their intensity intact, undiminished by our feeble actions. The reason we seem to love even more in death is because our desire to love, our ratzon, like a pressure cooker is building up inside.
Perhaps this is why we are all experiencing life in such high intensity right now. There is so much we want to do – so much ratzon – but it cannot be expressed. We want to hug our friends and loved ones, we want to go to our houses of worship; we desire to do so much, but it is just building up inside without being transformed into deeds. We are all experiencing the intensity of unbridled raw desire.
We are living through challenging times, but it is also an opportunity to understand ourselves and grow like never before. Who we are, our wishes and desires, are more accessible to us than ever. Like the chirping of the birds in a world with less noise, our identity, not drowned out by our actions, is bare before us.
Shavuos is a holiday that celebrates the Jewish People proclaiming, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do and we will listen. It was only a wish, a desire, but it was enough. Because it was at that moment of clarity when our ancestors said with deep conviction that all they desired was to live a better life, a Godly life, a life of Torah, that we became a people.
Many of us will be at home for Shavuos unable to say Yizkor like it is normally said. Take a moment to touch and feel the intensity of feelings towards your loved one. Many of us will be eating alone unable to celebrate the holiday with friends and family. Take a moment to appreciate how deeply you feel for your family. Many of us will be praying or studying alone. Take a moment to appreciate what community means to you. Relish this unique experience and feel the intensity of your unbridled and raw ratzon.
May we experience very soon the opportunity to express the many deep feelings welling up inside. In the meantime, may we use the quiet to better understand ourselves, to change ourselves, and to grow.