By Danya Ruttenberg / Special To The Washington Post
It’s spring, a time of hope; and, this year, a time of anxiety, of the unknown. But 2021 also brings a sense of more powerful possibility than we have had in a long, long time.
Thirty-eight percent of Americans older than 18 are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, and almost 55 percent have received at least one dose. The virus hasn’t disappeared — people are still getting sick and dying — but we are beginning to be able to envision what the after times might look like.
There is a theory, offered first by author William Bridges, that transitions happen in three stages: ending, the neutral zone and beginning. To effectively weather any important transition in our lives — whether in relationships, into or out of a major academic endeavor, in work, in geography — we cannot move forward until we have let go of who we have been, and what has been, in the past. Then, there’s a liminal space when we are no longer who we have been, but not yet who we will be. Only after we spend some time in the neutral zone does the beginning of our new selves, our new way of being in the world, emerge in earnest.
The neutral zone is a time of unknowns. A time when you’ve left one thing and don’t know what will happen next. A time of terror, of possibility, of creativity, of openness, of uncertainty. We know that it’s not this job, this relationship, this whatever that we are leaving behind, but we don’t know what the new chapter will look like or whether it will be good.
That’s terrifying. But it can also be so potent, so powerful. Ripe. No doors have been closed.
We are not quite at the end of this pandemic. But we’re starting to see what the neutral zone might look like.
More people are getting vaccinated. We can be outside more, without masks if we’re vaccinated, and there’s a year’s additional research to help us understand how to interact safely. We’re thinking about gathering together in new ways, what that could look like — vaccine passports, maybe? — and trying to figure it out. What will the after times look like? What doors should we be walking through? What structures should we be setting up now, for later? What visions for this next chapter could we be brave enough to dream up?
In Jewish mythic time, we’re also in the neutral zone right now. After Passover — the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt — there is a period of seven weeks before Shavuot, the holiday celebrating God’s giving of the Torah on Sinai. During these weeks, it is traditional to count each day with a blessing. According to the Kabbalists, each of the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot has a unique, powerful spiritual character, and the passage through these days is a sort of a journey unto itself. We have left Egypt; we have not yet gotten to Sinai. This is known as the counting of the Omer. (Omer means “sheaf,” referring to the time between the barley harvest at Passover and the wheat harvest at Shavuot.)
Leaving enslavement and crossing through the Red Sea into freedom was an ending. The receiving of Torah — a sacred covenant, a set of commandments, a road map for living — is a beginning. Now? This is the time in the wilderness. And it can help us all understand how to move on from the neutral zone of the pandemic.
We don’t yet know what a new, post-coronavirus chapter will look like. And there is, rightfully, a lot of anxiety about how to emerge from the pandemic, how to do it well and safely.
But this, now, is a time of possibility. We have opportunities to create new social structures, new ways of being. We don’t have to accept what we had before. That chance doesn’t come around very often. This is a moment when creativity and new thinking can help serve us and help us make the new chapter better. How can we use the pandemic neutral zone as a chance to create more justice, more equity, more wholeness, more hope and more truth in our society?
We can look at concrete policy proposals, like the American Jobs Plan — focusing, in a revolutionary way, on the caring economy — and the American Families Plan, which would enable paid leave and cut child poverty in half. And we can dream bigger still, looking harder than we have yet at power and powerlessness, at the larger systems of policing, criminal justice and incarceration, at public health, workers’ rights and immigration. What if we used this inflection point to finally create a society that begins with the presumption that we are each holy, that we each have infinite value, that we are each of us — every single human being — worthy of equity, justice, consideration and care?
No matter what happens next, things will be different. That much is certain. So how can we get out of the wilderness with them not just different, but better, for more people?
When the Israelites received the Torah, they got a new beginning that demanded that they set up systems of economic justice, that commanded caring for those who were strangers and other socially marginalized groups that said, in so many ways, that the paradigm of oppression and exploitation that characterized the chapter that ended with the escape from Egypt did not have to define the new beginning. And like the Israelites in Sinai, we have a chance to create a world that centers on care and concern for one another, most especially those who are marginalized or vulnerable. For you were strangers in Egypt.
In this neutral zone now, in this potent, liminal space, we can begin to dream our way into the possibility of a post-pandemic beginning with more wholeness for everyone.
And we can work, and organize, and fight, and learn, and change, and grow, to bring it into being. Counting each day until we get there.
Danya Ruttenberg is a rabbi, scholar in residence at the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) and the author of “Surprised by God,” “Nurture the Wow” and other books.