The importance of touch

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For many of us, this past Thanksgiving was a world apart from the Thanksgiving we celebrated – or failed to celebrate – a year ago.

On Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020, my wife Sandy and I sat safely and securely at our dining-room table in our Providence East Side condo, feasting on one well-seasoned turkey leg each, some savory stuffing, cranberry sauce and a modest dessert of pumpkin bread.  What was missing, of course, were all the people.

By way of contrast, this year’s Thanksgiving marked a return to normal, or almost normal.  As has been our custom for many years, Sandy and I drove to Natick, Massachusetts, to share the holiday with our son and daughter, their spouses and our five grandchildren, now ranging in age from 9 to 17.  As always, my daughter-in-law’s festive meal featured a large Kosher turkey and a wide variety of vegetables and other trimmings, as well as a ton of diet-destroying desserts.

What made our meal so special, however, was not the food – as delicious as it was – but the physical presence of family, three generations of us crowded around one large dining-room table.  Family! Family members whose presence we could physically feel, whose bodies we could hug, whose eyes we could peer into, whose voices we could hear even when we couldn’t quite catch what everyone was saying, because we were all talking at once and competing with the loud chirping of Duke, the family parakeet – such loud singing from such a small creature!

Gone were our face masks.  Gone was any pretense of the social distancing we had been practicing in the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic.  All 11 of us were vaccinated!

At least for that one day, lingering concerns about the delta variant were suppressed, while the word “omicron” had not yet entered our vocabulary.

This past Thanksgiving, the 11 people in our extended family were learning, quite literally, how to get back in touch; it was the diminution of our experience of touch that plagued all of us during the worst of our lockdown days.

In her Opinion column in the Nov. 27 issue of The New York Times, JoAnne Novak draws attention to how essential our sense of touch, our experience of touch, is to our physical, psychological and spiritual well-being. Novak’s essay carries a headline that is unusually long for any newspaper, let alone the Times: “We’re Longing for the One Thing the Metaverse Can’t Give Us.”

Novak begins her column with a reference to Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to change the name of Facebook to Meta, while promising to enhance its users’ experience “[t]hrough virtual and augmented reality ... to change how we live, how we connect with friends and family. … Except for all its patter about bringing people together, Meta enhances a fundamental disconnection: It removes our bodies from the equation.”

That is to say, Meta will wind up reducing our opportunities to satisfy our essential need for human touch.  Hours spent in front of a computer screen, no matter how sophisticated the programming, no matter how lifelike the “virtual and augmented reality,” can never replace time spent in the physical presence of family and friends – being together so that we may look at each other, hear the voices of each other, even smell the subtle and unique odors of our living bodies.

Of all our physical senses, as Novak reminds us, “Touch is central to our humanity, the first sense we develop.”

Touching, hugging, even shaking hands – sometimes referred to as “pressing the flesh” – are as important to our daily nourishment as the food we eat.

This past Thanksgiving, in the comforting womb of my extended family, all three generations of us, I was made acutely aware of how much we had lost during those days of confinement during the worst of the pandemic – and I realized how much we had regained by the simple but sacred act of coming together to celebrate what JoAnne Novak calls “the tactile joys of being alive.”

JAMES B. ROSENBERG is a rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim, in Barrington. Contact him at rabbiemeritus@templehabonim.org.