Nine months into the COVID-19 pandemic and it feels like God is laughing

Perseverance and an unswerving optimism helps us know that deep down, with our backs up against the wall, God will not abandon us.

A GIRL celebrates her bat mitzvah online in May, 2020. (photo credit: JTA)
A GIRL celebrates her bat mitzvah online in May, 2020.
(photo credit: JTA)
Mann traoch, Gott lauch (“Man plans, God laughs”).
You are no doubt familiar with this old Yiddish adage, which has become so ubiquitous that the hip hop group Public Enemy used it as the title for their 13th (bar mitzvah?) studio album in 1975. I certainly know that over my lifetime it has been one of my most used sayings, calling on it frequently to deflect life’s little disappointments: “We can’t go to the park today, it’s raining.” “I missed the movie because my bus never came.” “The strings on my new tennis racket broke after five minutes.”
Then COVID-19 came around, and the phrase took on a greater intensity as it became part of our daily lexicon. Early on, when the outbreak began, my personal disappointments still seemed relatively trivial (in hindsight). The plans I had made for my “big” birthday would have to be curtailed. The tickets for the Rolling Stones concert – which I had spent all day in front of my computer trying to get, and felt like I had won the lottery once successful – were now to be held for an undetermined future date. The upcoming trip to India I had so carefully planned for so long would likely need to be canceled.
Now, nine months and more than one million deaths later, it appears that God is not only laughing, but rolling around in heavenly hysterics. The stakes have gotten higher, with darker, more ominous overtones. As the coronavirus dug its sharp teeth into the fabric of our daily existence, it not only ruined lives and decimated families, but threatened the very essence of what makes us human: Social interactions became a curse.
But as God continued to laugh, it was now our turn to plan. It’s one thing to ignore a birthday, quite another to not celebrate a bat mitzvah. Concerts can be canceled, funerals cannot. Life-cycle events continued, some in spite of and some because of the pandemic. 
At first, when any type of human contact was verboten, we turned exclusively to technology. A circumcision on Zoom might not be everyone’s first choice for quality screen time, but it allowed my 88-year-old mother to see her new great-grandson for the first time. I was able to attend the funerals of three of my good friends’ parents, something I would likely not have been able to do under “normal” circumstances, due to distance and the Jewish obligation for immediate burial. 
An important side note here: All three friends said that these small, immediate-family-only gatherings were meaningful in a way that a larger, more impersonal funeral would never have been, a sentiment that was repeated by everyone I talked to who was celebrating any type of life-cycle event. 
Even shiva mourning periods were now planned ingeniously to avoid human touch while still allowing emotional contact. Elaborate online calendars, set up so that appointments could be made to “visit” the mourner by phone or video chat, were so successful that many suggested it’s a system worth keeping post-pandemic.
AS THE VIRUS continued to drag on, new plans and tactics were needed for events that could not be postponed indefinitely. I lost count how many Zoom weddings (what did we do before Zoom?) I attended over the summer, though I have to admit my enthusiasm and participation decreased with each passing celebration. I mean, I love weddings, but take away the band, the smorgasbord, the open bar, and the unnecessary five-course meal when people are already full, and what are you left with? An exceptionally long, muffled speech by the rabbi and a chance to see the latest in mask trends.
Which leads me to the highlight of the COVID-tainted event season, my nephew’s bar mitzvah. Originally scheduled as a blow-out, Olympic-themed (Shane is a top-notch gymnast) extravaganza in May, it was downgraded to a Category 2 simcha over Labor Day.
Instead of 300 guests being given a goodie bag adorned with Olympic rings as they walked into a capacious banquet hall, fewer than 50 (pre-registered, pre-assigned, pre-screened) guests were now handed a “Mazal Tov Shane” cloth mask as they entered sections of the cordoned-off synagogue. The service and small, socially distanced outdoor lunch that followed could not have been more beautiful or meaningful. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that a silver lining had shined brightly through a potentially dark COVID cloud.
And though Passover had caught everyone with their bread crumbs down, scrambling and nervously wondering what to do, the High Holy Days five months later were an exercise in careful planning and ingenuity. Faced with the possibility of another holiday without loved ones close by, disease-fatigued Jews around the globe made every effort to salvage New Year celebrations. 
Those willing and able to travel sat farther apart at dining room tables; hand sanitizer bottles were part of the festive decor. Synagogues roped off every other seat and every other row inside their sanctuaries; huge tents were erected for those preferring to pray al fresco. Shofars were blown behind Plexiglas sneeze-guards; individually packaged slices of honey cake were left on tables as parting gifts for participants.
Many non-Orthodox congregations were offering services virtually via webcams. Others had pre-recorded key portions of the liturgy and posted them on YouTube channels. I was thrilled, as an observant Jew who was unable to attend synagogue on Yom Kippur, to find a local radio station that broadcast Kol Nidre and Yizkor services. I set my alarm clock radio to go automatically on and off during those times, brilliantly squeezing my way through a loophole of Jewish law.
So yes, man plans, God laughs. But that same God has, thank God, given man the ability to – dare I say it? – get the last laugh. Careful planning, ingenuity, perseverance and an unswerving optimism helps us know that deep down, with our backs up against the wall, God will not abandon us. We will get through this a lot smarter and, we may hope, just a little more humble.
The writer is a Toronto-based writer and can be reached at [email protected]