Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” begins, “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” While the classic opening describes a different time and place, the latter sentence could surely apply to what we experienced this past year with the coronavirus pandemic.
Time will be the judge as to whether we learned anything from the nightmare. Looking back, it seems the 1918 pandemic taught us little as we faced the same ordeals, frustrations and losses in 2020. Then too, people struggled with the same rejections of face masks and social distancing and took to the streets condemning the loss of individual liberties. If we close our eyes, we could imagine it being today.
Perhaps King Solomon was correct when he declared: “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless … generations come, and generations go ... ” (Ecclesiastes 1). “No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow.”
Are we destined to repeat history rather than learn from that experience? Read the newspapers, watch the television, listen to the pundits — all declaring the same theme of destruction and hopelessness. Nothing has changed except the date.
And yet, I find that there is salvation stemming from the disastrous encounter with our mortality. People are standing up to the challenge. Tired and weary, they continue to show compassion and sensitivity toward the stricken. Overwhelmed by the numbers of the afflicted, they persevere to bring us back to normalcy with their undying dedication and fortitude.
This is the mark of greatness that we are capable of. This is the result of understanding that we are connected with a common bond of survival. This represents “the best of times,” as well as the best in us.
Now we are on the cusp of welcoming a new year. Perhaps we should look at this milestone as an opportunity to release the bonds of frustration. Perhaps we should try to understand that a new year represents the willingness to start over with a new outlook on the future.
Nothing in life is meaningless; nothing in life is useless. Every breath we take reflects the goodness that can be found in each of us because they stem from the breath that was breathed into us at the very beginning (Genesis 2:7).
It is the breath of life and fulfillment and meaning. It is the breath of the Divine reaching into us to announce that life is to live regardless of the detours that cause us pain and grief.
By the time anyone reads this, I am sure we will have received a great deal of help from those responsible for our well-being. The many men and women who strove to ensure that our lives will have meaning have demonstrated over and over again their willingness to remain steadfast in completing their assigned tasks so that “the best of times” might be ahead.
We will continue to weep for the hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens — and the millions throughout the world — who were lost to the destructive force of a disease that took control of our lives. The stories of suffering were and continue to be heart-wrenching. The pain depicted on the faces of survivors is our pain, their loss is our loss, their memories are now our memories.
Yes, a new year gives us the opportunity not only to cast off the past, but to look forward to the future as well. Our responsibility to the betterment of society should be part of our awareness. And our devotion to the One who gave us the ability to survive is paramount in remaining strong and vibrant as we face the future cheerfully.
Nothing in life is meaningless. JN
Rabbi Irwin Wiener is the spiritual leader of Sun Lakes Jewish Congregation.