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.

The Transitive Property

“We cried out to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and Adonai heard our plea and saw our affliction, our misery and our oppression.” (Deuteronomy 26:7)
            “So why isn’t our crying out working now?” my step-mother, Melissa, asked at our Passover Seder after she read this verse. My brother Josh jokingly suggested putting blood on the doorposts of our houses like the Israelites did.
            On reflection, I realized that Melissa’s question contained a few logical premises. Her question assumed that:
1)      God sent the original plagues, we cried out to God and God stopped the plagues – as stated in the Bible.
2)      Therefore, crying out to God should work for this plague too.
It’s simple Geometry – the transitive property – so why isn’t it working?
Beneath her question, Melissa raised deeper questions:
1)      Did God send the plague of Coronavirus? and
2)      Can God stop it?
Did God send this plague? I spent some time entertaining the idea that God may have sent the Coronavirus plague. After my Amazon Alexa told me the world’s air pollution had dropped due to people staying home, I went on a bike ride and wondered. I thought about how we’ve been in this state in recent years where the youth – headed by Greta Thunberg – understood the need to change our behavior to avert climate change, while older people in power have resisted. Perhaps, God would be tempted to send a plague that kills the older but not the young, causing people to stay home thereby reducing air and water pollution. This plague has caused humanity to realize we can live more humbly to avert death – which is what we need to do to avert the destruction of the planet through climate change. Perhaps, I mused, God did send this plague.
But then after I returned from my bike ride, I learned that a relative was in the hospital with Covid-19. He’s been on a ventilator for the past week. A few days later, another family member in another part of the country was taken to the hospital with Covid-19 as well. In both cases, their spouses and children were not allowed to visit them in the hospital.
God surely wants none of this.
The God that I believe in is a God of snuggles, hugs and kisses – a God who knows that zooming is a second-rate substitute for sitting beside a loved one and holding their hand. I imagine that like me, God is grateful for the blessings of Zoom, Skype and Facetime – which are infinitely better than no contact at all. Still, it’s not the same.
God surely didn’t send this plague...
And while I’m all for crying out, I’m not holding my breath that crying out will save us. As our sages said in the Talmud, “Where there is a possibility of danger, we should not depend upon a miracle.” Don’t get me wrong – I’d love a miracle, but I’m not expecting one.
The only way out is for our medical researchers to find a vaccine. In the meantime our medical professionals need to keep caring for the sick, our social service agencies to offer support the needy, our grocery workers and deliverers to keep us fed, the clergy to provide comfort and the rest of us to hunker down and Zoom our friends and family through this catastrophe. God will provide us strength and inspiration in these endeavors.
To be honest, I don’t know if God even sent the first 10 plagues in Egypt, but I do know that the Israelites recognized that the time of the plagues was their shot to get out and create a different kind of society which glorified life rather than death. So too, this moment is our chance to transform how we live.
As Rabbi Sharon Brous said, after the plagues, the Israelites “rebuilt a society that was the counter-Egypt, that was the anti-thesis of what they had experienced in their suffering in Egypt, and we will rebuild a society that is counter to the injustices and oppressions and indignities of this world that we have lived in.”
Or as Rabbi Steven Leder wrote, “Do not come out of hell empty-handed.”
Indeed, let’s create a society based on the antithesis of isolation. Let’s create a society based on love, justice, and togetherness.
So Josh, I don’t think blood on the doorposts is the answer this time. Melissa, I don’t think crying out is the solution either. I don’t think God sent this plague, but I know we can learn from it.
From the first 10 plagues, our people learned to “be kind to the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” From this plague, let’s learn that we have the power to radically change our lives quickly to avert our destruction. Let’s care for the earth and each other with renewed ferocity. That way, we won’t come out of this hell empty-handed.

Zooming Elijah

On Saturday, I attended an unprecedented event – a zoom bat mitzvah – the first ever hosted by Temple Aliyah. The bat mitzvah girl, her family and the clergy who participated in the service were each at their respective homes, as were the congregants, extended family and friends. The service was beautiful – with all the usual, moving parts of a bat mitzvah – the shining,confident bat mitzvah girl leading the prayers, the Torah and Haftorah reading, and giving her speech, as well as the kvelling parents and the wonderful rabbis blessing her with love.
Out of the entire service, there was one moment that stood out to me. The way the Zoom call was set up, during the actual service, the immediate family’s view on their screen was limited. Then, as the service came to conclusion for the Shehechiyanu blessing, the call was switched to gallery view so that the immediate family could see the extended family and friends on their screen. At that instant, the mom’s eyes welled up with tears of joy.
Although her family was standing alone in their living room, in that moment, she saw that she wasn’t alone. As I watched, I thought: That’s what Judaism is all about.
In the musical, Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, when Joseph is sitting in prison, he sings:
Close every door to me,
Keep those I love from me
Children of Israel
Are never alone
This has been the Jewish theme-song ever since because it encapsulates the central message of our faith. Even though we may feel lonely, we are never actually alone because God is with us. We are connected to Jews throughout the world, to Jews backward in time all the way to Abraham and Sarah, through each subsequent generation in our history to the present and from the present forward in time to a better future. More broadly, we are connected to all of humanity going back to Adam and Eve, all created in the image of God – thereby connected in shared sacredness and common hope for a better world.
On Passover, this idea is symbolized by opening the door during the Seder to welcome Elijah, who symbolizes redemption. Elijah simultaneously symbolizes past and future and our connection to Jews worldwide and throughout history.
This Passover has the potential to be the loneliest we have ever experienced, as our Seder tables will be smaller than ever. As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson noted in last week’s Jewish Journal, at this year’s Seder, Elijah may be our only guest. But even if we feel lonely, we won’t be alone. All over the world, we are in this predicament together.
David Suissa noted that paradoxically, the fact that there are smaller Seder tables means that there are also more Seder tables this year than ever before. We can take comfort in the idea that the door to Elijah will be opened in more homes than ever this year. In this sense, Elijah and Zoom have something in common. They’ll both be busier than ever– connecting us spiritually as we separate physically.
In the recent weeks, I’ve felt these connections through time and space reverberate. On Zoom, I heard Natan Sharansky in Jerusalem offer his advice for isolation based on his experiences in solitary confinement in Soviet prison. In the Global Masorti/Conservative Gathering for healing, I heard the shofar’s blast from Jerusalem, along with prayers from Argentina, New York, and LA. I read the Passover prayers from the Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto and Bergen-Belsen – from Seder nights infinitely more bleak than this one. I’ve seen the Federation staff working constantly to help the community with food, a community call line, and countless webinars, learning and support opportunities. And I heard the voices of our rabbis coming together to support one another while holding together each of their community – teaching so much Torah that I could barely keep up with it all.
This profusion of content and networks ultimately all boils down to the same thing – to that transformation my friend, the mom of the bat mitzvah girl experienced. It all comes down to the moment when we think we’re alone and then realize we’re not. This Passover, may we have such a moment. May we celebrate our interconnectedness as we never have before with abundant hopes l’shana haba for the year to come.