The Light of Hope, The Comfort of Meaning

Note: This article appeared in the February 2021 issue of The Scroll.

1 year. A whole bloody year. I cannot believe it. I blinked and a year has gone by since the world turned upside down. How do I know this? Because it all went crazy right after Purim last year. And now, this article is for the month in which Purim occurs this year. Inconceivable!

Of course, that’s measured by the Jewish calendar. I count the secular calendar’s begin date on March 16th. Not because it’s my birthday, but because that is when I was first exposed to COVID-19 (I tested positive two weeks later), and that was the first time I broadcast a congregational Mincha service on Facebook Live. So, if you’re counting by the secular calendar, we still have a little more than a month to go. Still, it has been an awfully long time since life was “normal.”

The advent of the vaccine gives me hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and perhaps this long nightmare is finally reaching its end. Too much has been lost, too many people have lost their lives, too much time has been spent indoors, and too many relationships have suffered. The pandemic is hopefully going to end soon, and I wish to be able celebrate that with you in the near future. But, life will never be the same. 

Make no mistake, a new normal will be found. People will go to work (although, perhaps more will work from home now), children will be born, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs and weddings will be celebrated, and the flow of life will return. I don’t think that this pandemic will be easily forgotten though.

Back when this whole thing started, I had many discussions regarding what meaning we might be able to draw from all of this. It always struck me as significant that the primary cost to humanity, beyond the obvious cost in health and human lives, was the loss of our togetherness. When we needed our friends and family the most, we have been unable to be with them. I have seen weddings celebrated with barely a Minyan. Funerals are devoid of supporting attendees and families have had to bear the burden of sitting shiva without the comfort of visitors designed to ease their grief. The scars from these disastrous experiences may last their entire lives.

Social distancing has been forced upon us for almost 11 solar months now and we will be marking a Jewish year when Purim comes in a few short weeks. After all this time in the darkness, have we learned anything that we can take with us?

The Talmud (Berachot 60b) states: “A person should accustom themselves to say, ‘All that the merciful one does, he does for good.’” The Talmud then proceeds to tell a famous story about Rabbi Akiva. He was traveling and arrived in a town but no one offered him hospitality (an almost unheard of thing in those days). So he camped in the field with his candle, his rooster, and his donkey. A wind blew out the candle, a fox ate his rooster and a lion killed his donkey. After each occurrence, Rabbi Akiva told himself that all that G-d does is for the best. The next morning, he awoke to find that the town had been attacked by an invading army and everyone had been captured. He repeated his axiom again, “All that G-d does is for the best.”

The hardest part is to try and find good when it seems like the world is burning around you. How can one find anything good in a pandemic that has caused so much death and destruction? 

One of the lessons our Rabbis teach us from the destruction of the first and second Temples, is that G-d was merciful in his punishment of his people. Whereas he could have utterly destroyed us, he vented the bulk of his anger on a building and, while it has been exceedingly unpleasant, it could have been much worse. The fact, as I have repeatedly stated, is that the Jewish people have outlived all those who wanted to destroy us. It is easy to complain about how G-d has treated his people but, in the end, we are still here when all of our old enemies are in the dust and no new enemy has succeeded in their attempts to destroy us.

Even in this pandemic, I see his kindness. The vaccine that is now being distributed is the result not just of six months of hectic efforts by pharmaceutical companies, but the result of many research efforts that have been going on for years. G-d prepared the world for this pandemic by putting the basis for the vaccine in motion long before the pandemic itself was unleashed on the world. As the Talmud tells us (Megilla 13b), “G-d does not punish Israel unless he has first created the remedy.” With the rest of the world, however, he first strikes and then creates the remedy. G-d guided researchers years ago in directions that allowed them to come up with vaccines for COVID-19 in record time. If they had been forced to work from scratch, I shudder to think where we might be.

Of course, there are still many questions and nothing is assured. We have to see how quickly the two vaccines used in the United States can be distributed, and their efficacy finally established in the real world. Still, hope is its own powerful medicine and, for the first time in a long time, I have hope that, as my father used to say in Yiddish, “Mir zeining shoyn nenter vi veiter,” we are closer rather than further from the end. 

It is with some pride I note that the Jewish people have had a significant role in the development of these vaccines. Pfizer’s CEO is a Greek Jew and the son of holocaust survivors. Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer is an Israeli Jew. 

I do not know why Hashem does what he does. Last time I looked, I did not know of anyone with G-d’s office or home telephone number so I doubt that anyone not in need of psychopharmacological intervention has spoken directly with him to find out. Still, I know he has a reason and that encourages me to try and glean what meaning I can from this. You can do the same. You do not have to come to the same conclusions I have over the past year, the meaning for you may be different than it is for me. I just think it would be a mistake for us to try to put the last year in a box and shove it somewhere dark and out of sight.

A great writer once said that the only way to deal with fear is to confront it and kick it in the teeth. I think the same is true with the last year. We need to confront it and do what we can to find a perspective. For me, finding meaning in it helps. 

The theme of Purim is “V’nahafoch Hu,” it turned over. The day of Purim was originally designated as a day for our destruction. Instead, Hashem turned it into a day of celebration. May our times of trouble come to a swift end, may our lives turn from one of worry to one of surety and confidence, and may our sorrows give way to light of Joy for us all.

Chana and I wish you all a Happy Purim!

Posted in: The Cantor's Cloud

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