When Marcia and I were in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, we would take a half mile walk outside with my sister to a local coffee shop. We did this a few times. I don’t think any of us really needed the coffee mocha. We just wanted to walk and talk and stroll through the neighborhood around my parents’ home. In all the years they lived there, we had never taken that walk and seen the quaint and beautiful homes, manicured lawns and beautiful flowers. But that is another story, though related to this one. It was good to get outside in the fresh air.
So much was unusual in Los Angeles. There were few cars passing by and very few people walking on the sidewalks, and those who were – like us – were wearing masks and gloves. And when that rare individual approached us on the sidewalk, the same thought crossed our minds and the same question: Either she or we would be the first to move … into the street as we walked by each other – The COVID-19 Two-Step, I like to call it. Who would it be? Them or us? And, as we passed by, never stopping to chat mind you, “Oh, thank you.” “Have a nice day.” Or, gam zeh ya-avor.
Well, not really. My parents don’t live in a Jewish neighborhood. I can’t imagine people in America blurting out a foreign language, let alone Hebrew. But, I know, as we passed, we were all thinking the same thing, gam zeh ya-avor, “this too shall pass.” This very phrase has roots in stories from various cultures. Some say it is of Persian origin. The tale is famously retold by English poet Edward FitzGerald and notably employed in an 1859 speech by Abraham Lincoln when he spoke to farmers. But for us, it is a story about King Solomon.
One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah Ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. “If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”
“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.” Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.
Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. He was about to give up when he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet. “Have you by any chance heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.
He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile. That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.
“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled. To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!” As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words “Gam zeh ya-avor” — “This too shall pass.” At that moment Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.”
This is a lesson of impermanence. Experiences and moments arise, we embrace or fear them, and then, seemingly in a moment, they pass us by. The difficult and painful ones drag us into the depths of darkness. Then, in the next moment we are filled with the light of exultation, happiness, and joy.
My friends, we all have faced both the Good and the Bad. Recall that we have given space for the appearance of both in our lives. The Bad has appeared and then as quickly have evaporated from your thoughts. The Good and the Blessed moments also, and those have vanished just as swiftly.
Distressing times in life are overwhelming and devastating, and crushing. But our emotional responses do not have to remain in your consciousness forever. They are real, and they do affect our behavior, but they do not have to remain. Just look at your hand. Imagine King Solomon’s gold ring. Read the words, gam zeh ya-avor.
We have an appreciation for this story as we look at the news and we hear of the toll the virus has taken on our world. This reality is difficult when my wife, a famous homebody, yesterday said, “I have just had enough of this!” But this reality is temporary; gam zeh ya-avor.
If I have not convinced you to have hope, then perhaps then the words of Abraham Lincoln, the future 16th president of the United States at the Wisconsin Fair, might:
It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction! ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.
Hope, my, friends is the virtue of the strong. May God grant you the strength to endure what life brings you. Amen.
 Milwaukee, Wisconsin Agricultural Fair, September 30, 1859.