It is natural to feel down during the coronavirus lockdown. An argument can be made, however, that we should look up (Essah ainai) and feel uplifted during this period instead.
It is important to compartmentalize. Rabbi Avigdor Miller delivered a brilliant and insightful presentation on the antidote to depression, in one infinitely perceptive and targeted infinitive—“to be busy” (torasavigdor.org). By focusing on constructive and positive activity, one tends to push negative thoughts out of one’s mind. Now is the time to convert a lifetime—or even a month’s time—of “to do” lists into “been there, done that” lists.
As we are finding out, not all work has to be done in an office, and not all work has to lead to instant financial payment. Volunteer work, and work around the house, is still work, and is still necessary, perhaps now more than ever, when more people than ever (during the lifetimes of most of us) are not receiving instant or even delayed financial remuneration, and therefore more people than ever can benefit from help by volunteers. Many men—myself included—are discovering that work can also be done in the kitchen, and with brooms and cleaning agents throughout the house. It has been said, with tongue in cheek, that traditionally—at least until the past month or so—a Jew could be identified by whether or not he or she is or was doing work that he or she can or could hire somebody else to do. Now is the time it can be genial to do work that is menial, and even to learn to enjoy doing it, especially now that we can do so with earphones and ear buds and all kinds of attachments, while listening to music or books or news (hopefully to a minimum) or Torah (hopefully to a maximum). In many cases, a person’s full-time regular work does not allow for such pleasant distractions, which can be internalized as meaningful attractions.
At the moment (hopefully this article will be outdated by the time you read it), there is much foreboding as to who will live, who will die, whether we will live, whether we will die, whether even those who live (especially after weeks hooked up to a respirator) will ever be able to live with the same level of health, whether we will become immune to the virus, whether the person sitting next to us will be immune, whether immunities will last, whether the virus will mutate into something worse, whether other viruses will crop up in our lifetimes that will be as bad as the coronavirus or worse, whether our savings will be depleted, whether savings of people on whom we rely will be depleted, whether our jobs will be lost temporarily, whether they will be lost permanently, whether our institutions of all kinds will survive, whether they will fully or even partially recover, whether our city, state and federal governments will have enough income to provide necessary—let alone unnecessary—services, whether we will ever feel fully comfortable praying, dining, flying, cruising, or entertaining again, and whether society as we know it will continue and not be threatened by anarchy and all that this leads to, God forbid.
To date, however, only a small—but painfully growing—percentage of people most of us know have actually succumbed to the virus (although every one is an unbearable loss), especially among those who followed or have followed our government and rabbinic leaders in social distancing, and those of us below the age of 60 (which in full disclosure I no longer can convince myself or others that I can claim to be). Strikingly, although traditionally a lifetime was informally defined as 70 years, at which point a person becomes “old,” one of the notable fathers (of undisclosed age) in the “Ethics of the Fathers” defines old age as beginning at 60 (5:24), precisely the original cut-off for the coronavirus to begin cutting off the lives (especially but of course not exclusively to those who fail to live by the formally announced preventive conditions) at significant percentages. Little solace so far for those of us who believe we are approaching or are well into the second half of our lives on the path to 120.
Unlike many people who lived through the Holocaust and other pogroms and pandemics throughout our history, most of us still have our freedom and our expectation that most of us will survive personally unharmed, and with opportunities to make up for at least some lost opportunities, and to seek out, create and benefit from many more. We don’t have to lie huddled up in hiding, in darkness, without moving around freely at least in and around our apartments or homes, and without having to whisper in order not to be heard or found.
Another one of the notable fathers in the “Ethics of the Fathers” proclaimed, “Who is rich, who is satisfied with his lot (4:1).” Those of us in isolation have more time than ever to study the Daf Yomi (the universal cycle of study of the page of the Talmud), where other answers have been given, incidentally, to the question of who is rich (Shabbos, 25), though none nearly as profound. Few can be satisfied living a life of isolation, but all can be satisfied, at least if we compartmentalize, if we focus on our glasses being half full rather than half empty. Half full? you may ask. Our glasses seem much less than half full, at the moment. But if we compartmentalize and focus on what we now have, a glass at a time, each sip of each glass will provide the satisfaction of quenching our thirst.
At this point, most of us still have our lives, our health, family members, some savings, prospects for a rebounding stock market, access to communities and people who are willing to share some of what they have and functioning governments providing services for all of us, as well as access to clear water, and the benefits of growers and producers of nutritious food (some of it delicious as well), supermarkets stocked with most foods (if not necessarily all types of all wipes), even restaurants and take-out delis and pizza shops continuing to provide take-out fast foods and slowly savored delicacies. We have access to other goods and services. We have electricity, and most if not all of the gadgets hooked up to it: heat or air conditioning as applicable (hopefully this article will be outdated by the time air conditioning becomes a factor for most of us), television, radios, the internet for unlimited knowledge, news, opinions, entertainment and, above all, human interaction. The list goes on and on, for those who refuse to become listless (which brings us full cycle back to the antidote to depression—lists of things to do, and doing what is on these lists).
There is no guarantee that all of what we now have will remain with us forever, or even for the duration of the current plague, but while we have all of these benefits, we have all the more reason to focus on what we have, and what we have access to. These might be the best days of our post-February-2020 lives. We should savor every minute of every one of them while we have them, and focus on what he have now and hope to merit in the world to come (more than on what we had, and what we still hope to have on an ever-changing and unpredictable planet).
To extend the metaphor one step further, two people can have access to the same half glass of water. The person who focuses on the empty half will be forever miserable. The person who focuses on the water in the glass will be happy. The person who doesn’t just focus on the half with water, but who appreciates every sip will experience a sense of well-being in which his or her cup is consistently overflowing. His or her cup runneth over. Even now.
Rabbi Reichel is the author of “The Maverick Rabbi,” on Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein, a leader of the Jewish people during the periods of the Spanish flu, the Holocaust, and the Depression, as well as during the rebirth of Israel.