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Vials of the SARS-CoV-2 Vaccine

Adar, Mussar, and Vaccines

I feel like I need a ritual. A mikvah, a candle, a b’racha. A something. Not that the vaccine is a panacea, an invisible shield, or the cure to this horrible pandemic, but it’s a new beginning, a hope. Something to feel grateful for, to give thanks for. Out LOUD.

I’m grateful. Though it meant driving 150 miles to the vaccination site, I was, at last, able to get a vaccine appointment. I’ve now had both doses of the vaccine that will prevent me from dying of Covid-19. I’m fortunate. Not many others are. Already, half a million people ­– half a million people – have died from this pandemic in the U.S. alone, to say nothing of the ongoing, increasing worldwide toll. So, shouting out loud to the world about having gotten my vaccine is not a sensitive thing to do. And, other than proclaim that vaccines are important, I wonder: what can I do to help?

Recently and by sheer coincidence, I joined a group to study Mussar, part of the Jewish spiritual tradition that reminds us, “You shall be holy” (Leviticus 19:1).  I first learned about Mussar when I visited my granddaughter’s Orthodox Jewish second (or was it third?) grade classroom. Here’s the thing: I’ve never been a big fan of rules – and Orthodox Judaism is filled with rules. It has rules about rules (and maybe rules about rules about rules). In short, I wasn’t primed to like anything I saw in her classroom.

But something happened.

In the all-girls second (third?) grade classroom, the teacher shared a story about – get this – gift-giving. In the story, a girl was over-the-top excited about a birthday gift she’d gotten an art-loving friend. Bursting with excitement as she gave the birthday girl the wrapped gift, she whispered to another girl, “They’re water-color pencils!”  To which the other girl responded, “She already has them. They’re not that much fun, anyway.”

Talk about bursting someone’s bubble, about taking good and making bad. Whew! What a lesson. Bursting bubbles is something I’ve done – thoughtlessly – countless times. I never meant to burst someone’s bubble. But it happened.

I listened as the teacher discussed middot, inner traits and behavior, and Mussar – how to pay attention to our behavior. I was moved by her teaching. I was wistful, too. I wished someone had taught me those lessons, instead of leaving me to figure things out on my own. And I wished that I, too, could study those lessons.

When a writer-friend mentioned that she’s studying Mussar, I was inspired. I found a Mussar study group and joined. My group is reading Every Day, Holy Day by Alan Morinis. Each week, there’s a different attribute to study, a phrase to contemplate, and an action to put into practice.

This week, the attribute is gratitude. The phrase to contemplate, from Pirkei Avot, is Awaken to the good and give thanks. I took that phrase literally, awakening each morning to seek the sunrise, photographing it, making a record of it. I tried to find light in darkness. I recorded the play of light on trees, the long shadows, glimmers of sun on snow, snowflakes on trees, ice-coated tree branches, graceful icicles. I’ve always reveled in bright winter sunshine, soaked in warm February rays, and the occasional strikingly beautiful crisp blue skies. This week, I awakened to the good. I gave thanks for the beauty.

Yet not far away, there is misery in the name of Covid. There are power outages, illnesses and storms prevail. Texas has been frozen and powerless. So, how do we reconcile this?

If I see only good, I am blind to the reality of life. Yet if I ignore the good, the darkness will prevail.

It’s the month of Adar, a month when – according to the sages – joy should increase. Each day, more light, small signs of spring, of rebirth. Winter is waning. The joys that winter brings – wrapping in warm blankets, snuggling with a book, spending an afternoon sipping hot chocolate, tracking animal prints in the snow, enjoy the beauty of a snowflake, an ice crystal – all will soon be gone.

Each day, the sun lasts a little longer, the night is a little shorter. The maple tree yields a little more sap. With each day, more people receive vaccinations. With each day, spring is a little closer. Life is a little sweeter… joy increases.

Yes, I am filled with gratitude. And, yes, I would like a ritual for receiving my vaccine.

But our world is filled with suffering. Now that I’ve had my vaccine and am (somewhat) protected, perhaps there’s a way I, too, can help. After all, to quote another of the sages, If not now, when? And…surprise! That’s the phrase my Mussar group will be contemplating next. Talk about gratitude!

Linda Elovitz Marshall, author of the Sydney Taylor Notable award winning The Polio Pioneer: Dr. Jonas Salk and the Polio Vaccine (Knopf, 2020) and many other books for children, can be reached at www.lindamarshall.com