A note: I started this post a few weeks ago, and completed it on Friday, but did not get to post it. Since then the situation has gotten worse, more confusing, and more frightening. Today, almost two weeks after Purim, I feel like I am wearing a mask again- not the paper one I wore last week when I had to go shopping and to the pharmacy, but one of confidence and positivity, so that others who look to me will feel reassured. It is sometimes hard to feel this within, as everything continues to deteriorate, but I feel that the post below stands, and it is the message I am trying to tell myself as well right now. We can all wallow, cope by using dark humor, or instead, listen to shiurim or give them, be there for others, and in general, do what we can to bring the sunshine out of the clouds. We all choose.
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Sometimes there is a day where the sun is shining and the skies are blue, with fluffy white clouds, the birds are singing, the weather is pleasant- and I am in bed with a migraine. Yet there are also days where the wind is rattling the windowpanes, it is darker than midnight although it is morning, and it feels like the sun will never shine again- but my head feels fine, and I go about my day as usual.
This past week of ups and downs in the weather, corresponding to all the turmoil with how to work from home/be stuck at home with your whole family and try to keep things “normal”, combined with fears we don’t want to entertain about what tomorrow will look like, has been anything but business as usual.
A few weeks ago we read the parsha (torah/bible portion of the week) where we remember Amalek. They were the only nation who seemed not to see how powerful God is, as was just demonstrated when the plagues finally led to the Jewish people being freed from their many years of slavery in Egypt- or maybe Amalek saw it too clearly, and they wanted to dilute that power, so they attacked the weak of the nation, those at the back of the group of travelers, the sick and the old. Even as I reread the above, written weeks ago, I have shivers because that is exactly who this virus is attacking.
Although it is part of the story of the upcoming holiday of Pesach (Passover), we read this portion right before Purim, the holiday just passed, where we celebrate how everything turned upside-down for us, but in a good way (unlike the current situation). During the time period of Purim, Haman, himself a descendant of Amalek, asked the king for permission to kill all the Jews- ostensibly because just one Jew, Mordechai, would not bow to Haman (a high-ranking official), despite a decree that everyone should. Mordechai heard the decree that the Jews would be allowed to be killed, and gathered the Jews to fast and pray, so this would not happen. Then he asked Esther, the new queen who was secretly Jewish, to beg a reprieve from the king.
That Shabbat was the last one I was in shul, gathered with others, and then on Purim to read the megillah- the Purim story itself. Just this minute, I got a message that the shul is closed for now. So many weeks I have been too tired to go, or for other reasons missed shul- and now that I can’t, I wish so much I had gone every chance I had. Like many times in life, we don’t always see what we have until it’s gone. Yet somehow we are lucky now. We are living in a different age- the age of technology. We may not be able to be there in person for everyone we would like to, but we can at least call or send a message. We are all still connected- I have been getting messages all week about when we will say a world-wide prayer, learn and pray “together,” even if not in person.
The picture with this post is a picture I took last week of Greg Cafe at Tzomet Hagush, when I was going to the pharmacy there. At first it was scary to see it empty, and reminded me of the Gulf War part one, when I took a picture of a nearly empty Yaffo Street on a Friday. But this time, stores are empty for a positive reason- to protect each other, and we in Israel are not alone in our isolation and fear- we are all staying connected and supporting each other, as well as staying in touch with those even farther away who we can’t be with. And that makes a big difference.
During the week before this parsha I was thinking about it, and about what Amalek had to do to themselves in order to attack the Jews. Amalek, who even as we “remember” them we say it is to stamp out their memory (for if we do not remember history, we are doomed to repeat it), had one flaw, the biggest flaw. They saw something positive and wanted only to tear it down, make it less. But the Jewish people are asked to do the exact opposite- if we see something that looks negative, we try our hardest to put a positive spin on it. Even in the megillah, Haman’s wife supports him until things start to look bad for him- and then she says “If you have begun to lose to the Jews, you will lose.”
When a glass breaks, we say mazal tov- a strange custom, but it comes from connecting weddings and the remembrance of the destruction of the Bais Hamikdash (the Temple). For even at times of our greatest happiness, it cannot be complete without the symbol of our unity, the Temple where we gathered to be a nation. So at the end of the wedding ceremony, we take a minute to sing “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,” and then break a glass. Since this completes the ceremony, the couple is considered wed immediately following this moment, so the crowd shouts Mazal tov-congratulations! Now we, as a people, forever associate breaking glass with shouting mazal tov. It sounds funny, but it really says something about us. At our happiest moments we let a bit of sorrow in, and when things are difficult, we look for the good.
We live in a country that depends on rain to fall and fill our reservoirs, so unlike most people who see clouds and think about the gloom they bring, when it rains in the winter, we call it a blessing. We start each day by saying thank you for one more chance, one more day to be alive, and our prayers are mostly about counting our blessings. We even thank G-d that our bodies are working right when we go to the bathroom-not a time one would usually think about G-d. We learn from an early age to appreciate what we have, to look for good even in a situation that we perceive as bad. G-d doesn’t need these prayers- they are for us. They open our eyes to the fact we can open our eyes, they help us see that which we would take for granted. Too often we open our eyes—I know I do—and the first thing we think about is the million and one things we “have to do” today, all the responsibilities weighing us down, our worries. We plan our days, make a list (I do), and maybe we get some of it done by the end of the day. But one thing not on my list is breathing, or taking the time to think. It strikes me that right now, at this time, being able to breathe is a major item to be thankful for, no small thing to be taken for granted.
We fill up our time, thinking this is “life.” We have so much time, but never enough. But if an emergency came up, all those things on the list would get pushed aside- none of them really important in the end. We are living through that emergency right now. All those meetings, all the errands, are secondary to figuring out how to live, how to get through this frightening time. Instead of filling our days with work and business, we are home, trying to keep our families safe and also stable. We are going through something no one living has seen (except for those who are 100 plus and survived the Spanish flu 100 years ago), and no one knows what will happen on the other side, what the world will look like when we go back to “normal.” But for now- people are sending out funny things, and positive things, and links to sign up to help those in need. We are all doing our part by staying home as much as possible, in order to protect the most vulnerable in our population, except for the really important workers—those in healthcare, cleaners (for hospitals and supermarkets), and supermarket workers. Some are home but staying connected/being available so they can help others who depend on them, now more than ever. We are all doing our best to live, and to help others live.
“Life is pain—and anyone who tells you otherwise is probably trying to sell you something,” says the Dread Pirate Roberts in the movie The Princes Bride. He acknowledges the Princess’ grief for her lost love, but dismisses it in the same breath, even though he knew something she didn’t, and he could have eased her pain. But he chose to highlight the negative, and leave her in pain, because he had also suffered and thought at that time that his pain was her fault.
Life may be painful at times, or just difficult. But life also has beauty, and comfort. We can take this time at home to do something positive, to connect with people we are usually too busy to be with, and we can breathe. We can look at this time as a blessing. We can alleviate each other’s pain, and our own, instead of dwelling on the negative. We can take the time to make a difference, to make things better, to see the positive. I want to personally thank those who are going out for others who are staying home, trying to keep those at risk safe, and all those who are handling the flood of calls and helping the sick and the scared and confused.
In a few weeks we will celebrate the holiday of freedom, whether we are still stuck at home or not. If we cannot be with those we love, we can have them in our minds and hearts. If we have taken this time to bring more light to the world, it is for the good. It all depends on how we open our eyes.