Igniting a Flame for Practice During Pandemic

By Dr. Zach Lasker

A few days ago I tried to start my car in order to run an errand and … no power. Irritated since I had replaced the battery earlier this year, I looked up and noticed I had left the reading light on. No wonder that nine days after I last used the car (for my pre-Thanksgiving COVID test) it was empty. Now, I’m not too proud to admit that this isn’t the first (or second) time that my battery has failed from car neglect. When will I learn?

At first I chalked this up to yet another casualty of pandemic quarantine.  With so many restrictions and the disruptive pains of isolation, the lights that animate my life are at risk of powering down. Nine months earlier I was supposed to see The Book of Mormon at the Ahmanson Theater the exact night the first round of Los Angeles lock downs occurred and since that time I haven’t enjoyed big screen or live stage performances, felt the pulsating beat and communal energy of spinning in a cycling studio, nor hosted a Shabbat dinner for friends. There are days when life feels so hopeless.  

My challenge can be summarized in a single word: Tapas. No, I’m not referring to the tasty small plates of food that come out of a Spanish kitchen. Tapas is a concept in yoga that points to the inner flame in each of us which inspires dedication to our practices; the discipline that fires us to pursue our goals and dreams regardless of the obstacles we face. In the words of my teacher Constance Habash: 

Think of Tapas as that little flame inside of you that motivates you and keeps you on track with anything of importance in life. It makes you floss when you don’t feel like it. That inner fire motivates you to make changes when you know you need to. Without Tapas, we probably wouldn’t bother to do the “hard” things in life, and therefore to make any sort of progress…”

This pandemic has pushed me to confront my Tapas at a raw level of intensity I never fathomed in the 10 years I’ve been practicing and teaching yoga. It seems the only effortless ritual is binge-watching tv shows on my beloved streaming platforms. Each day I wake up and dig deep to gather strength for rituals that I previously took for granted – my morning run, connecting with family and friends, and even showering, shaving, and getting dressed. 

Back in my car, as I confronted my depleted battery, a light bulb switched on over my head revealing the unprecedented relevance of Chanukah this year.  On a “p’shat” (simple/direct) level, we celebrate the flask of oil which lit a Menorah salvaged from destruction for eight miraculous nights. Yet, the power of Chanukah runs deeper as we honor the Maccabee family and their crew who drew inordinate Tapas-energy to protect their Jewish practices and freedom from the merciless grips of religious persecution.

As we head into this next dark phrase of pandemic I’m curious to know if and how my fellow Americans generate and maintain the lights of faith, joy, and connection that keep us from sinking into despair. While unquestionably a time of loss, the virus is also pushing us to adapt and make new discoveries.  

At Open Temple in Venice, CA I partner with Rabbi Lori Shapiro – a spiritual leader, artist, parent, and entrepreneur – who is more determined than ever to re-enchant Judaism and create open doors for each person to carry on their Soul Journey. We’ve converted our parking lot into a holy paradise with green pods for households to engage in ritual while social distancing. Car scavenger hunts and outdoor puppet shows nurture the creative spirit of our children. Challah dough, incense, and lanterns have dropped on the doorsteps of our families to help them usher Shabbat in and out of their homes. We gather under the stars for contemplative walks, ocean dunks, and fire-pit discussions on holidays ranging from Tisha b’Av to Rosh Hodesh to invite reflection and growth. Bicycles and kayaks are used to glide through prayer services – six-feet apart, yet together – surrounded by the rhythm of music as we exchange blessings of gratitude. And, we use Zoom rooms and online platforms to engage people in Jewish yoga, text study, respectful dialogue around the future of American democracy, and to stream offerings that help people stay safer-at-home when necessary. 

As Jews we are familiar with barriers to entry. Rather than retreat, we carry the legacy of the Maccabean Tapas to illuminate new ways to sustain and evolve our spiritual practice.  

Rabbi and scholar Moshe Davis taught, “A candle is a small thing. But one candle can light another. And see how its own light increases, as a candle gives its flame to the other. You are such a light.” This Chanukah it is more important for each one of us to re-dedicate ourselves to the fight for social, racial, and spiritual freedom. The volatile combination of pandemic and political division has revealed the plague of inequity that creates suffering. May each night of Chanukah empower us to nourish our inner flames of compassion, justice, and love and may we use this heat to lift each out of darkness and into light.

Dr. Zach Lasker is a Jewish educator and communal leader who serves as Executive Director of The Open Temple in Venice, CA. He is also a 500-hour certified yoga instructor.