How you become an essential worker

These days, all the talk is about when or how to open up the economy and who is allowed out and who must stay in quarantine. Regardless of where you live, the one thing that has always been the case is that essential workers are allowed out.

Who is essential? The range is huge. From doctors and nurses on one side, to liquor shops and computer stores on the other. The essential workers put their lives on the line so that the rest of us can remain safe at home. But can you become an essential worker if you are not already?

Let us look at this in an allegorical way

There is a wonderful story told of Reb Elimelech of Lisensk, who was visited by a colleague who wanted to know why his spiritual achievements were not on the same level as those of Reb Elimelech.

Reb Elimelech asked him: “Do you say a blessing before you eat an apple?”

“But of course,” replied his friend.

“Aha, therein lies the difference between you and me. When you want to eat an apple, you a blessing, but when I want to make a blessing, I find an apple to eat.”

Now this may seem like semantics but this story encapsulates a powerful idea. The rabbi was telling his friend: when you want to partake in the material world, you understand the importance of saying a blessing to acknowledge that everything, including the apple, comes from G-d. For me, when I want to connect with the Divine, I recognize that as a human I need a material agent to act as my assistant, as such I seek an apple when I want to make a blessing.

With this as a background, I want to tell you how to become an essential worker.

In Hebrew, the word for essence is etzem. In Chassidic parlance, etzem is a reference to your core. Your absolute essential self. The journey of every person is to find their etzem and connect with it. To be true to who they really are. To seek and discover who you really are. To live intentionally not reactively.

I’ll give you an example: I grew up as a child of Chabad emissaries and much of what I worked towards and how I lived my life was set in motion for me, almost because that is all I knew. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. However, this can create an existential question. Am I doing my work and activities because I am a rabbi, or am I a rabbi because I serve my community?

There is a huge difference depending on how I answer the answer this question. It is highlighted now during quarantine.

If I am a rabbi because of what I do, then when my ability to serve is curtailed by outside circumstances, then my identity is in question. However, if I am serving my community because I am a Chabad rabbi, then my identity isn’t impacted by quarantine or pandemic because who I am hasn’t changed.

Furthermore, it really doesn’t matter what I do, only that whatever I do is consistent with my mission as a Chabad rabbi. Be it picking up trash at the Chabad House or teaching Torah classes live or on Zoom or having minyan on Shabbat, or doing a private prayer service with my family.

If I (or you) am living reactively, and I don’t stop long enough to consider these deep and essential (etzem) ideas. The solution is to go into lock-down, quarantine or whatever you call it and get in touch with your etzem/essence. Once you’ve journeyed to your etzem/essence and come out the other side, now you are an “essential” worker.

If you are an essential worker, you are allowed out. If you are still unsure of who you are, well then, you need to stay inside a little longer until you become an etzem/essence(tial) worker.

Like Reb Elimelech hinted in the story above, it is all about what your focus is, and then your priorities are put in place. Or to frame it using the most extreme language: Are you living because you are not yet dead, or are you alive because you’re living intentionally.

Essential workers are people living intentionally. Let’s all become essential workers.

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