Updated: Jan 20
There is a lot of confusion and doubt in these “coronavirus days,” especially within the Jewish community, where optimism has always played a large role in how we live, even in the face of some of the harshest realities. Synagogues, mikvehs, schools and yeshivas have suspended all activities, going against our natural instinct to be optimistic and soldier on in the face of adversity. Jews are naturally optimistic and for many it can be a challenge to follow instructions and concede that the situation is dire.
The Talmud tells of two sages who exemplified this trait of always having a bright outlook in life despite it not necessarily being self-evident: Rabbi Akiva and Nachum Ish-Gamzu.
In fact, Nachum’s last name came from a phrase he would always use: “Gam zu letovah—this too is for the best.” He always trusted in G-d, and even when things seemed dire he believed that it would all turn out well in the end.
Rabbi Akiva’s phrase was, “All that G-d does is for good.”
While similar on the surface, it carried a different message than Nachum Ish-Gamzu’s saying.
The difference between the two is that while Nachum found the silver lining in every situation, even when things did not seem good, Rabbi Akiva never even saw the bad; everything that occurred to him was always good in his eyes. Where Nachum saw good within the bad, Rabbi Akiva only saw good.
In this current situation, is it possible for either of those forms of optimism to exist, especially since we are not anything like these great sages?
People often associate optimism with denial. How can we be optimistic when reality is so clearly telling us the opposite? How can someone claim that all is well when the world is facing a raging pandemic, poised to take so many lives, G-d forbid? What right do we have to be optimistic?
Of course, we must take all the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus and to follow government guidelines. Don’t be smarter than the experts and don’t ignore their warnings. Everyone should stay home, especially older people and those that are immuno-compromised. But at the same time, we have the ability to form our own attitudes, and attitude is what leads to action.
The Jewish attitude should always be to help others. Those that are young and healthy should do whatever they can to prevent older and more vulnerable people from catching the virus. This means avoiding congregating in groups, don’t go out unless it is for essentials, and wash your hands often. We should make ourselves available to help those that cannot help themselves at this time.
In addition to their risk of catching the virus due to age or vulnerability, living alone can lead to them not being up to date on the ever-evolving information coming out from the CDC and other sources. Call or text them to see how they are managing in isolation and update them on the precautions they should be taking. Offer to pick up groceries and other vital needs, and see if there is any other way you can help.
And most importantly, don’t forget that you can do all this even after the virus passes. We are very good at being there for each other in times of tragedy and loss, but wouldn’t it be great if we did the same even when everything was good?
Or, to use the above two sages as an example: We can—and should—be like Nachum Ish Gamzu, and whenever there is negativity about, find the silver lining and make the best of it.
But we should also be like Rabbi Akiva and not wait for there to be a tragedy, G-d forbid. Our attitude should be that we must always be there for others, always be prepared to reach out and lend a hand. Gemilut chassadim, acts of kindness, is one of the foundations upon which the world depends, and it should not be limited to times of tragedy and pandemics. Of course we need to be ready to help then. But we have the ability and the responsibility to make the world a good place all the time, even when everything seems just fine. Pick up the phone and call someone you haven’t spoken to in a while, offer to pick up medications or dry cleaners for someone who has a hard time leaving the house. Cheer someone up by dropping in for a visit, bring over a home cooked meal for Shabbat, or even for a regular Tuesday. Know someone out of a job due to current events? Offer to help them in as dignified a way possible.
Jewish optimism means that we still believe in G-d despite all that is going on. There is uncertainty in the world, but was anything ever really certain, other than that G-d is in charge? We don't know why G-d does what He does, but we do know what He expects us to do.
We are blessed with many opportunities to help others. So if we are going to turn this pandemic into a blessing for the future, let us resolve to continue bringing out the best in ourselves and our communities every single day.
May G-d continue to bless all of humanity with health, peace, and prosperity. Today and always!
(A version of this column appeared in The Forward.)