Scrolling through Facebook this morning, I saw a post that made me chuckle: “It seems like the most common side effect of getting the COVID vaccine is inability to shut up about getting the vaccine.”
Just when we finished getting bombarded with Menorah pictures, our collective social feeds were getting plugged up with images of front-line workers getting pricked with needles. I laughed because I was also starting to get a little cynical about these posts. But then, after saying Hallel for the final time this Chanukah, a counterpoint emerged:
A few days ago, I was talking to a number of teenagers and in the course of the conversation one of them said that their lives are filled with endless tragedy and constant suffering. I looked around and was shocked to see his friends all nod in agreement. These are kids who are living comfortably, receiving a stellar education that will enable them to get into the best colleges, who are mostly healthy, and when they are not, receive the best medical care available in the world, and yet, they’re telling me how bad the world is. What is going on here?!
In truth, it’s not their fault that they see their world in such a negative light. They are a product of our news-cycle that highlights every societal ill and ignores any positive progress made. They are the children of a society of kvetchers who at dinner parties (remember those?) complain about their many ‘first-world problems.’ And most importantly, they are human. We are programmed to focus on all that is wring and to ignore what is right.
there’s a story told of a professor who gave an assignment to his students. He gave them each a piece of white paper with a small black dot in the center and asked them to write what the picture represents. Some students wrote of the infinite darkness found in a black hole, others spoke of the negative emotions that the blackness represented, and still others wrote of the black dot symbolizing their darkest secrets.
The next day they received their papers back and were shocked at their grade. They all got F’s. The professor explained, “I asked you to write about what you saw on this page. The black dot took up a fraction of a fraction of the page. You all chose to focus on the dot and ignored the 99% of the paper that represented warmth, clarity, and beauty.”
It is human nature to focus on what stands out and not the norms of life. Illness is so distressing because we are so accustomed to being healthy. Untimely death is so jarring because we live such long lives. And similarly, bad news is news because most of the time things are good. Not only are things good, but as Steven Pinker compellingly argues, things are getting progressively better.
Today is the final day of Chanukah. Chanukah, as we’ve discussed so many times, is a strange holiday in that the victory was not long-lasting. The Hasmonean dynasty crumbled due to in-fighting and Jewish sovereignty that was so valiantly fought for was quickly lost to the Romans. Our sages debated the centrality of the Maccabean victory for years and it took time until they decided to add Chanukah to our calendar of holidays.
Their decision to include a small and short-lived victory into our lives is a powerful message: Not all good lasts forever, there is pain and there is suffering. But an even greater tragedy would be if we lose sight of the good as fleeting as it may be. This is the message of Chanukah; l’hodot ul’halel, to give thanks even when the gift will be gone tomorrow.
Saying thank you and appreciating the good is not an easy task. Human nature directs our attention to what is broken. But we are Yehudim, from the word hoda’ah, thankfulness; we pride ourselves in being able to see and celebrate the good even in the darkness. So share those pictures of your rolled-up sleeves; what a miracle that we have a vaccine! Let me know when that person on the cholim list is feeling better; “blessed is the healer of all flesh!” Tell your kids and tell yourself that for all the frustrations, today was a good day, that you woke up this morning to the most precious gift there is, life itself; “Modeh ani… she’hechazarta bi nishmasi!” And may we only share in good news.