Fighting the Pandemic of 2020
Imagine you are back in seventh grade American History class. For 45 minutes, you listen to your teacher lecture about the city of St. Louis in 1918. She describes how they closed schools, playgrounds, and churches when the flu broke out that year.
Assuming Coronavirus never happened, this history lesson might seem boring, irrelevant.
As the teacher reads an excerpt from someone’s diary during that time, you might yawn and think, Who cares? You flip the glossy pages of the history book and glance at the ticking clock on the wall. This information will just be facts to memorize for an upcoming test.
Students may not empathize with the challenges that accompany a shutdown of such magnitude. The listener struggles to consider what it means for the people who have lost jobs or businesses, or who were living in isolation. The teacher describes death statistics, and even these numbers fall on deaf ears. To the student, this entire lesson hardly seems worth mentioning.
Suddenly, in 2020, this history lesson comes alive as we ourselves are experiencing challenges and unprecedented anxiety concerning the future.
True accounts of my friends include:
“I’m trying to keep my composure with my children even though every time I clean something, it gets messy three seconds later.”
“I have no strength left, and no one seems to know how long this will last. I’m done. The other night when my children were fighting again, I just covered my face and cried.”
Our patience is being tested every moment. Worry follows us through our daily tasks. This time period can be thought of as “middot in the making”—or breaking.
How can we overcome these battles? How are we meant to maintain calm and fight the yetzer hara, which provokes unrelentingly?
Small and Specific Goals
Just like setting small goals while long distance running, we can manage the long haul of the quarantine by setting mini-goal posts along our way. Locate your next target and simply reach for that. For example: “We just need to get to Shabbos.” Or, “I just have to make it through dinnertime.”
Small goals are necessary in combating the yetzer hara, especially when managing the overwhelming middle part of this process.
Specificity makes our goals actionable. By the time a student is finishing her fourth year of medical school, she doesn’t tell people, “I want to be a doctor.” Instead, she states more specific ambitions: “I want to be a neurologist.” Similarly, we need to clarify our own specific goals in this difficult time. We cannot be content with, “I want to grow spiritually.” Rather, “I want to grow spiritually by reciting one perek of tehillim each day.”
Almost every successful business uses specific goal setting to create unbounded success. Unless we set specific objectives, the yetzer hara will crush us into feeling too overwhelmed to begin the growth process. Growth can occur anytime and anywhere, even in a quarantine. We can combat the yetzer hara by creating a specific and manageable plan.
One of the greatest antidotes to the yetzer hara is Torah study. “I have created the yetzer hara, and the Torah as the antidote.” Torah is such a powerful weapon against the yetzer hara because it is through learning that we understand what Hashem really wants from us.
Suppose a husband says to his wife, “I got you the best birthday present ever!” She is dreaming of jewelry when he continues, “It’s a new tool set!”
Without learning Torah, we don’t know what Hashem wants from us, and we are like the spouse who is somewhat clueless. We can deepen our relationship and connection by learning Torah and taking small steps to doing that which Hashem wants.
The Torah delineates Hashem’s desires and sets a clear path beneath our feet. When we remove obscurity, we can tackle our purpose with joy.
Many connect to prayer by asking for material needs while simultaneously overlooking the benefits of praying for spiritual success. The midrash informs us that we must pray for everything we need, even a pencil. We might assume that indicates only praying for physical needs, but the Maharal instructs that we must also pray for our spiritual success.
Recently, I was praying, “Ribono Shel Olam, it’s going to take a complete miracle to raise children in our society today. With the obstacles of drugs, alcohol, promiscuity, and technology, raising happy, productive, and kindhearted children cannot be done without You.”
A few days after praying in this way, I began a parenting class, and the first sentence that the teacher, Mrs. Chani Heyman, expressed was, “Before anything else, we must pray. It doesn’t matter if you do everything right, prayer is essential to our success as parents.”
Sarah Rigler was involved in a character development group led by Rabbi Leib Kelemen, and she was specifically working on her anger. Rabbi Kelemen asked how she was faring. “Terrible,” she responded. “I am doing everything you suggested, and it’s simply not working.”
“Have you been praying for success in this area?” he asked.
Praying for success to overcome her anger had not occurred to Rigler. Kelemen was adamant that without prayer, success would not be attainable.
There may be times when we are grieving, or too numb to pray with fervor. Yet even these prayers can lead to change—both within ourselves and for the overall situation. Every prayer has purpose, and can be applied to material or spiritual struggle. We are powerless over our addictions, challenges, and yetzer hara without prayer. As humans we have finite capabilities, but when we enlist the powers of HaKadosh Baruch Hu, we attach ourselves to something infinite, and then the impossible can happen.
Living a Memoir, Not a Diary
Memoirs and diaries give very different perspectives on the same story. Diaries are valuable because they relay an honest, first-hand encounter sharing detailed emotional highs and lows. However, it does not contain the perspective that a memoir has. The author of a memoir has a longitudinal vision, and therefore does not include every difficult moment. A memoir uses life perspective to skip certain periods, knowing they won’t all have impact on the main story. They may gloss over areas that a diary would describe as paramount. Alternatively, a memoir may emphasize historic events that a diary would not include because the author may not realize the event would later have a major impact.
Although keeping a journal during this difficult time is worthwhile, it could be more advantageous to maintain the perspective of a memoir. Try staying above the highs and lows of daily life, sugarcoating the challenges, and glossing over difficult days. A memoir skips moments that although may have been intense or troublesome at the time, are not important to the overall life story. We can, too.
I recently saw a beautiful description of this concept in an anonymous Facebook post. In 2040 someone may ask, “In history class we learned that the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 was pretty bad. What was it really like?”
One answer might resemble a diary entry: “It was horrible. We had trouble finding essentials in the store, like toilet paper and food. We were scared of economic failure, and we went stir crazy in the house.
Another might describe it as memoir would. “All I remember is school closing and being homeschooled. We did scavenger hunts in the backyard, went on bike rides, slept in, and ate meals together as a family for a change. It was a very happy time in my childhood.”
Ultimately, we have the power to create our own story. Will we remember this time period like a diary, giving detailed accounts of the challenges? Or will we focus on the positive, turning it into a timeless memoir?
These days of quarantine offer highs and lows for even the most composed of us. But if we can set specific goals, pray, and see life from the lens of a memoir, then we stand a fighting chance of coming out a winner. Stay tuned for the next column for more techniques to battling the yetzer hara in this new environment.
 Kiddushin 30b
 Heller and Rigler, Battle Plans, p. 186
 Heller and Rigler, Battle Plans, p. 111, referring to Gur Aryeh to Bereishit 46:29
 Heller and Rigler, Battle Plans, p. 52
 Lipstadt, Deborah, Foreword of Renia’s Diary, p. 8