How A Little Pirkei Avot Eased A Little Pandemic Stress

I didn’t grow up hearing much Hebrew or Yiddish. I got the occasional “lay keppy (head)” from my mother when I was an over-exhausted busybody who refused to take a nap, but otherwise Jewish words or phrases never had a prominent space in my life or held a special place in my heart.

So when a Hebrew saying stuck with me as a 23-year-old, I figured it was going to mean something . . . I just didn’t know how much.

The phrase is this: “nosay b’ol im chavayro,” which has been translated to mean “to share the burden with one’s friend.” We can find this phrase in Pirkei Avot 6:6, where it has been translated just a little differently: “Who shares in the bearing of a burden with their colleague.”

When I first heard this saying toward the end of 2019, during an all-staff meeting in which we were learning about how to implement safety, respect, and equity into our workplace; while we were still going into and sharing our office space on a daily basis and never thought we wouldn’t be, it stuck with me for some reason.

I thought I just liked the sentiment behind it, for it aligns with who I am. I’m an empathetic person; if I have the capacity and opportunity to do so, I will always lend a hand, an ear, a shoulder; it brings me joy and peace to do what I can when someone is in need of assistance.

Little did I know that just a few months after first learning of this phrase, having it typed up, and taping it to my desktop at work to have as an intentional reminder each day I sat down at my desk…. that in March 2020, I would be carrying that desktop home to my kitchen table to socially distance and bear what continues to be quite a large emotional, mental, and physical burden.

However, staying true to this phrase that instantly meant a great deal to me, “nosay b’ol im chavayro,” I was not bearing this burden alone.

When interpreting this phrase before the pandemic, however, I had always considered myself to be “one’s friend.” I was the one who folks leaned on, talked to, opened up to. When the pandemic hit, so much was unknown, and there was no end in sight, I felt this phrase reshape and personally invert itself, for I was the one sharing my burdens and sharing in burden with others, carrying the same if not equal burden.

I honored and still continue to honor this phrase and its newfound meaning in a number of ways.

I have been more honest with myself, my feelings, and trusted my gut. Not only have I listened to the way my body feels more, but I have learned to share those gut feelings and honest emotions with those around me in the hopes of creating a safer, more open, vulnerable space together that welcomes and encourages honesty. If we are stuck sharing space with others as well as ourselves 24/7, might as well make that space one that fosters trust.

I have found new ways to feel close to loved ones who are far away, while also dedicating time to feel closer to those who are near, and/or as near as we can be (remaining six feet apart). Whether that’s FaceTime’ing family more often just to chat and share updates or to light candles together across two different time zones, or celebrating more Shabbats by making large meals and eating outside or having a happy hour with my pod. Truly, this burden-sharing feels like an uplifting Pirkei Avot moment in real time, right now.

We are all “one’s friend,” and we are all “sharing in the bearing of a burden.” Both roles within the quote apply to all of us, constantly. When we hold fast to ideas like this, we are never truly alone when it comes to shouldering our burdens and our sorrows. And though we have been isolated, I’ve never felt closer to the folks in my life. I’m grateful to be the needed friend—and glad to have a community that will care for me, too, as a friend-in-need.

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