These days, all the talk is about when or how to reopen the economy, who is allowed out, and who must stay in quarantine. Regardless of where you live, the one thing that has always been consistent 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’s look at this allegorically.

The famed Reb Elimelech of Lizhensk was visited by a colleague who wanted to know why his own 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 say a blessing, but when I want to make a blessing, I find an apple to eat.”

Now this may seem like nothing more than semantics, but the 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 in mind, let’s look at how we can all become essential workers.

In Hebrew, the word for “essence” is etzem. In Chassidic parlance, etzem is a reference to your core—your absolute essential self. The life-long journey for each of us is to find our etzem and connect with it. To seek and discover who we really are. To be true to who we 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, but it can lead to 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 this question, and 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. If, however, 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.

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

If I (or you) am living reactively, and I (or you) 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, your essence. Once you’ve journeyed there and come out the other side, now you are an “essential worker”.

As 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 get there.

Like Reb Elimelech illustrated, it’s 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 join their ranks.