I forgot a lot of things during the pandemic: how to make small talk, how to interact with servers in a restaurant, how to wear real pants instead of pajama bottoms. Returning to patterns of normalcy is both comforting and jarring.
My experience in trying to adapt to life after the pandemic makes me wonder about the experience of the Israelites as they returned to their homeland and tried to adapt to life after the Babylonian exile.
Deported from their homeland in 586 BCE, the exiled population lived for roughly 70 years in a foreign land with unfamiliar geography, customs and traditions.
The post-exilic books of Ezra and Nehemiah suggest the return to “normal” took time and intentionality. As such, this story offers some pointers for those of us who spent the past year never being away from our pets for more than five minutes at a time.
Be grounded in the Word.
The story of the exiles’ return suggests that as the people are going back to life in their homeland, they prioritize an encounter with their sacred text. After living in a polytheistic Persian society for decades, the returned exiles affirm the Torah as authoritative for their new lives.
Nehemiah 8:8 describes the process whereby the scribe Ezra leads the community in reading and studying the Torah, providing interpretation as they go so that the whole community might understand.
As we emerge from pandemic lockdowns, the biblical text offers us what it provided for the returned exiles: grounding in communal values. This text, ancient though it is, continues to exert its grounding and centering power to shape lives and communities. Proclaiming, studying and communally engaging with the Word may continue to ease life transitions today, even as it did for the exiles returning from Babylon.
Navigate life experiences with significant rituals.
In the process of centering themselves on the Word, the returned exiles rediscover the Torah’s instructions for Sukkot, or the Festival of Booths. As Nehemiah 8:16-17 tells it, the people embrace this ancient tradition and immediately go out to forage for materials to make their own booths to participate in this ritual event.
While most Christian communities today do not observe Sukkot, there are many other rituals that do structure religious life: baptisms, communion, Christmas services, Easter celebrations. Beyond religious settings, rituals mark other important life events like graduations, weddings and funerals. Such rituals provide a way of negotiating moments in life that may otherwise be fraught with difficulty.
Following the return to the land, the reintroduction to the biblical law and the rebuilding of the gates of the city, the returned exiles throw a party of epic proportions (Nehemiah 12:27-43). The guest list includes communities from all around the region of Jerusalem. Singing and music-making are heard far and wide (12:27, 36, 43). A procession around the city ends at the Temple, where sacrifices are offered (12:31-43). The community recognizes the importance of celebrating their new life in big ways.
Communal celebrations may look a bit different today, but the act of sharing joy with one another remains important. After over a year of living in the exile of a global pandemic, finding ways to rejoice together remains important. This celebration of shared life encourages joy and the development of social relationships that will sustain a vibrant future.
The parallels between the post-exilic setting of Ezra-Nehemiah and our post-pandemic setting today are not exact. Nonetheless, as we, like the returned exiles, emerge from a period of collective trauma, we can take a cue from the returned exiles about how to re-engage with one another.
By being grounded in biblical values, using rituals to mediate important moments and engaging in collective celebration, communities can reconstitute their collective identities, even as some of us are still reminding ourselves that wearing slippers to work is probably not appropriate.