The Trick: A Yom Hashoah Reflection

I woke up at 6:30 am (on a day when I could have slept in) and my mind started racing: What if I lose my job? What if my husband loses his job? What if one of my immediate family members gets the Coronavirus? As Mark Schiff wrote, “my mind loves to take me on trips through very bad neighborhoods.” Indeed, my tour had begun.
I was eager to end my mind’s trip through this bad neighborhood, so I got on the elliptical and put on a recording of Trevor Noah’s Daily Social Distancing Show on the television for comedic relief. In this episode, he interviewed Christina Koch, a NASA astronaut who recently returned from 11 months in space, the longest mission any woman astronaut has ever completed.
Trevor asked Christina: “How do you prevent yourself from going crazy when you’re stuck in that small environment for so long?”
She answered: “It’s all about how you frame it and your grattitude, just like what we’re going through now.” She further explained that for her, “the trick is to put the right thing on repeat in my head.” So if she found herself missing something from earth and thinking something like, “I wish I had a latte right now,” she would replace it with something unique she had now that she’d never have again, like “Wow, I’m really going to be bummed out when I can’t look at these auroras from space again,” and repeat that in her mind. That way, she flipped the negative into a positive.  So instead of thinking, “I’m so over this… when is it going to be over…you’re actually thinking wow, I want to savor every moment.” Genius!
Her idea reminded me of an article I read months ago which offered another mental trick which is key to happiness. The article by Jon Gordon, an author and speaker on leadership explains that two simple words can transform your whole outlook on life. He explained that we often say things like, “I have to take the kids to practice.” “I have to go to this meeting,” “I have to go to work today” or “I have to see my family this weekend.” – as though we don’t have a choice in the matter. He suggested instead of saying “have to,” to say that we “get to” do those things – since those tasks are a privilege, a sacred gift. “We get to go to a job while so many are unemployed. We get to raise our children even if they drive us nuts at times. : )”
I read this article months before the Coronavirus outbreak, but I didn’t implement this change to the way that I spoke. I still talked in terms of have to. Now, though, I realize just how right Jon Gordon is. Many of the things I had to do before the Coronavirus outbreak, I don’t get to do anymore. I don’t have to drive my daughter to school or dance class because she doesn’t get to go there anymore. I don’t get to go to the drycleaner or Goodwill because they’re closed. I don’t get to visit family and friends. I’m acutely aware that like all jobs nowadays, my job is a privilege that may end at any point.
Our tradition is big into the language of “have to” and of “obligations” – a long list of 613 have tos – mitzvot (commandments), to be exact. This language reflects the reality of human psychology. If we have to do something, then we get it done, whereas if it’s optional, we’re less likely to do it. We are far less motivated to do extra-credit assignments than required ones. I know this from my own experience. After my mother’s heart attack, I learned from CNN that exercising for 30 minutes 3 times a week reduces one’s chance of heart attacks by a third. So I added 30 minutes of daily exercise to my to-do list as a “have to” – a mandatory obligation. If I had added it as an optional activity, it wouldn’t get done.
Yet, the problem with the language of obligation is that our life can become an endless list of have-to’s which can eclipse our sense of joy and gratitude for these activities. The root of the word Mitzvah (commandment) comes from a root that means to join or attach. So each obligation is a chance to connect to each other and to God.
This idea is echoed in a verse from last week’s Torah portion. After the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, Moses told Aaron to bring a purification offering. Moses said, “And they brought that which Moses commanded before the Tent of Meeting; and all the congregation came close and stood before God.” (Leviticus 9:5) In this verse, the verbs “commanded” and “came close” are juxtaposed. Every commandment is a chance to get closer. Each “have-to” is actually a “get-to.”
Actually though, the trick to happiness isn’t two words – but just one. It’s a word that has come up a few times in the last few weeks, striking and puzzling me each time. My dad keeps reminding me how “lucky” we were to be able to have my daughter’s bat mitzvah in person on March 14th. He is absolutely right. The bat mitzvah was in the last open synagogue in Los Angeles, the day before it closed. Each time, he says it though, I feel a certain irony. It would have been luckier if it had been a day earlier, and we wouldn’t have had to cancel the party. It would have been luckier if it had been a few weeks earlier and her grandparents could have kissed her when they wished her mazel tov. But he’s right, we were extremely lucky.
This weekend, I zoomed with my Aunt Laurie, who had Covid-19 and was released from the hospital recently. She too said how “lucky” she was to have survived. Here too, surely it would have been luckier not to get this disease – not having to spend harrowing days in the hospital where her family couldn’t even visit her. Where after returning home, her daughter had to dress up in a hazmat suit to bring her food. Still, the fact that Laurie emerged from this horrible experience with a sense of being lucky is the key to her recovery and happiness.
Actually, the first time I was struck by the word “lucky” was when it was said to me by Yetta Kane, a Holocaust survivor from Temple Beth Shalom in Long Beach. Her husband, Rabbi David Kane, of blessed memory was the Cantor Emeritus of that synagogue when I was the rabbi. Yetta always tells me that she is so lucky and that she “won the lottery.” The reason she gives is because her children, grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren practice Jewish life and keep kosher homes. She uses the metaphor of the lottery, not for monetary gain, but for the Jewish continuity in her family.
I am always struck with that same sense of irony whenever she says the word lucky. In many ways, she lost the lottery by being born as a Jew in the worst time and place in Jewish history to have been born a Jew. She witnessed first-hand the worst horror in human history – and fled with her family while being shot at – through the forests of Eastern Europe to ultimately live in a small stall with a horse in Siberia for over a year eating pig food. (Her younger sister was born in that stall.) Talk about confinement! The space shuttle is a palace by comparison.
But through it all, she considers herself “lucky” to have survived and that attitude is what gave her and her husband the courage to create a beautiful family, to care for a community, and to teach us the recipe for courage. Yetta and David Kane’s memoir is aptly called, “How To Survive Anything.”
In these past weeks of restrictions I’ve thought so much about Yetta and Anne Frank and all the Holocaust survivors who had to endure confinement much worse than this. As I see how familial friction increases when the family is stuck in close quarters for extended periods with fear of death looming, I think of Anne Frank and her family, and how much worse it was for them in much smaller quarters for much longer with a greater probability of death. Yet somehow, she managed to retain hope and to transmit that hope to us. As Anne Frank wrote, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world." Perhaps, we should put that on repeat in our head!
Yesterday, I caught a glimpse of that hope. I was filming my daughter for a dance audition for her school’s dance elective for next year. To get a better view, I stepped outside my front door. There I heard my neighbor Scott coaching his fifth grade students for a Zoom performance of Romeo and Juliet. In that moment, I was touched by the resilience of the human spirit. After the bombing in Tel Aviv on the Dolphinarium dance club in 2001, a sign was put at the site of the bombing that said, "Lo Nafsik Lirkod" - we will not stop dancing. Indeed, the virus can keep us home but it can’t keep us from dancing, theater, and improving the world. 
This Yom Hashoah, I pray: Someday soon, may we again get to do what we had to do before the Coronavirus, and may we remember just how lucky we are to do so.