“There are decades when nothing happens, and weeks when decades happen.”
Apparently, this quote was one of the most popular quotes of 2020. And understandably so. 2020 was a year of epic proportions. From the global COVID-19 pandemic to the US presidential election, from political protests to millions of people worldwide losing their jobs, it certainly feels as if “decades have happened” in this historic year of 2020.
It is thus no wonder that so many have expressed their wish to “delete 2020,” as if this year was akin to a virus-filled computer program that can simply be deleted.
Yet, Judaism teaches that everything happens for a reason. In the words of the saintly Baal Shem Tov of the 17th century: “Nothing in G-d’s world, happens by chance… Every single thing one sees or hears must serve as a Divine instruction.”
And so, dare I ask: Before we bid farewell to 2020, what can we learn from this tumultuous year? Here are seven possible lessons to consider:
1. If one sneeze can affect our world so dramatically, one positive deed can certainly produce an even greater change.
Think about this: 2020 was filled with turmoil and havoc, largely because of one individual in Wuhan, China, who sneezed. His COVID-19 respiratory droplets quickly spread and brought about a pandemic that the world hasn’t seen in over a century.
The idea that invisible molecules can create such havoc, is astonishing. But it also begs the question: If such small particles from our body can produce such a pandemic, how much good can our souls create with its Divine particles?
To paraphrase Maimonides: “Each person must view himself and the entire world as being half meritorious and half guilty. If he does one single good deed, he can tip the scale and bring deliverance to the entire world.”
2. A little bit of fear is good.
It is no secret that 2020 was replete with fear and uncertainty.
But as much as fear can rattle us profoundly, it can also awaken us to a renewed appreciation and commitment toward all that is certain, such as our family, our health, our values, and our raison d’être.
Perhaps, this is why the wisest of man, King Solomon taught that “happy is the man who is always fearful” (Proverbs 28:14). It is true: A little bit of fear is valuable, for it prevents us from becoming apathetic and indifferent, and it opens our eyes to all the good that lies in and around us.
3. When we come together as one, even the most destructive of diseases become curable, and even the cruelest of challenges are, eventually, surmountable.
As I write these words, people worldwide are being vaccinated against COVID-19. This vaccine is a result of the unprecedented collaboration between world-governments and international experts.
It is in historic moments of unity such as these that we are privy to the power of collective responsibility. And in spite of the divisiveness in our society, 2020 has taught us that when we come together as one, even the most destructive of diseases become curable, and even the cruelest of challenges are, eventually, surmountable.
4. Keeping good hygiene is true both physically and spiritually.
In 2020, health officials have warned us, time and time again, to “keep good hygiene.” But I wonder: are we as careful about physical infections as we are about spiritual ones, such as negative words and actions?
We live in an age of impulsions. In social media, we often do not hesitate to voice our immediate reaction to every story under the sun. But in the race to speak back, we often forget to think. In the urge to reply, our swirl of emotions often eclipses our clarity of thought. And in the heat of disagreements, spiritual viruses can spread uncontrollably.
In the wise words of the Kotzker Rebbe (1787-1859): “All that is thought should not be said, all that is said should not be written, all that is written should not be published, and all that is published should not be read.”
5. Ask not what you want from life; ask what life wants from you.
Viktor Frankl, the famed psychotherapist, once taught his students to “not ask what they want from life.” Instead, they should ask “what life wants from them, and then, happiness will follow.”
What we wanted from life in 2020 was surely different than “what life wanted from us.” We may have planned for ‘A’, but ‘B’ happened. But the question begs itself: how did we respond? Did we bury ourselves in frustration, or did we learn to accept the hidden blessings in God’s unannounced plans for us?
Frankl was right. As we march into 2021, we must learn to accept what life wants from us, even when it interferes with our own plans. At times, we may not see the blessings in the unexpected twists and turns of life, but we must believe that they exist if we can muster the courage to embrace them and heed their call.
6. What matters most is what is now.
2020 was a year that no one could have predicted.
Yet, it is precisely this unpredictability that gifted us the awareness that the only predictable moment is right now. Thus, it would behoove us to focus our full attention on the present, rather than on the future. In the words of my beloved mentor, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel of blessed memory: “What matters most is what is now.”
Indeed, every day is filled with infinite treasures that will never return. Every moment is filled with opportunities that beg to be actualized. Every hour holds within it blessings that impatiently wait to be unleashed. But will we recognize them, and act upon, them before they slip away?
7. The only senses that are reliable and trustworthy are our spiritual ones.
2020 has, in many ways, has demonstrated the unreliability of our physical senses. After all, what they perceived as certain — our wellbeing, our jobs, our future — has become so uncertain.
But 2020 has also taught us that the only senses that are reliable and trustworthy are our spiritual ones. Such as our ability to love and to care. Or, our power to be kind and compassionate. Or, our capacity to have faith in the One Above, and in ourselves.
Astonishingly, it is those spiritual senses that have helped so many of us cope with our apparent solitude during this year. For, our spiritual senses know that solitude is but an illusion, and we are never truly alone.
When we found ourselves “alone” at home, God is with us. When we were forced to celebrate festive occasions “alone,” the affection of our loved ones, still enwrapped us. And when people die “alone”, we realized that their good deeds and many merits were with them, accompanying them from this world to the next.
May our spiritual senses, and of all of the aforementioned lessons, continue to guide us in 2021, to a better, healthier, and brighter future. Amen.