The Next Right Thing

I bet a lot of you have never seen Frozen II, the hit sequel to the Disney animated movie about two sisters, Elsa and Anna. But I have three granddaughters and I have seen the film and listened to the score many, many times.
Towards the end of the movie, Anna is desperate with grief: She thinks that her beloved sister Elsa is dead and now her best friend Olaf the Snowman has literally melted away in her arms. She curls up in a cave and almost succumbs to the grief and sadness she feels over the deaths of her two loved ones. It is the darkest moment of the movie.

She searches for the strength to overcome her despair, which is especially difficult, for almost everything she did in her life was for the sake of her sister, and it seems like nothing will ever be good again. But she remembers the words of Pabbie the Troll, that when you don’t know what to do, you do “the next right thing.“

She sings:

I’ve seen dark before
But not like this
This is cold
This is empty
This is numb
The life I knew is over
The lights are out
Hello, darkness
I’m ready to succumb

She sings to her sister who is gone:

I follow you around
I always have
But you’ve gone to a place I cannot find
This grief has a gravity
It pulls me down
But a tiny voice whispers in my mind
“You are lost, hope is gone
But you must go on
And do the next right thing.”

Can there be a day beyond this night?
I don’t know anymore what is true
I can’t find my direction, I’m all alone
The only star that guided me was you

How to rise from the floor
When it’s not you I’m rising for?

Just do the next right thing
Take a step,
step again
It is all that I can to do
The next right thing

I won’t look too far ahead
It’s too much for me to take
But break it down to this next breath
This next step
This next choice is one that I can make

So I’ll walk through this night
Stumbling blindly toward the light
And do the next right thing
And with the dawn, what comes then
When it’s clear that everything will never be the same again?
Then I’ll make the choice
To hear that voice
And do the next right thing

I’m not sure what this song is doing in an animated movie for kids. In a way, this may be the most depressing song ever written. The songwriters, Kristen and Bobby Lopez said that the song is directly based on the death of director Chris Buck’s son in 2013, right before the original film was released.
If you’ve ever really known grief, you get this song. At this moment of Yizkor, when we remember our loved ones, we also remember how badly we were wrecked when we lost them. You feel like someone kicked you in the stomach and you can’t breathe. You have a gaping hole where your stomach used to be. And at a moment like Yizkor, we sometimes go back into what we went through when they passed away.
If you’ve ever gone through any kind of major trauma, suffered a heart attack or a stroke, a bitter divorce, losing your career, being hit with a frightening disease, you know what it’s like to be curled up in a dark cave and being engulfed in darkness. Or to use the title of the movie, you know what it’s like to be frozen, to be frozen solid in ice and you cannot move.

All of us had moments like this during the last year. What do I do? Where do I go? Who can I see? The most basic things in our lives had to be examined and questioned.
And at those times, we had to think: What is the next right thing?
The next right thing was to stay home
The next right thing was to wear a mask
The next right thing was to get tested
The next right thing was not to visit that family member
Sometimes the right thing was not to do anything
We made constant daily sacrifices for our health and the health of others

The right thing was to put life before anything else
To run to the Food Bank
To help with school supplies for kids
To help those in shelters
To respect the aged
To mourn the dead.

So I wasn’t going to tell this story but I just have to. Our friend Linda Spivack is the Head of Nursing at the Einstein Campus of Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. Last spring, when New York was the epicenter of the virus, she was on the front lines, in the red zone, in the worst place. After bravely fighting off the virus herself, she went back to work in the midst of the crisis. And one day she called me to say that she had found that there was a Jewish man who had been in the morgue for weeks and who, with many other unclaimed bodies, was going to be thrown in a mass grave in a kind of Potter’s Field. Jewish person to Jewish person, Linda did not have to tell me what images came rushing into our minds by this possibility. So I called the Plaza Funeral Home in New York and when I talked to the man, Jewish person to Jewish person, we did not have to say what images came rushing into our minds. So they found a grave in New Jersey. It turned out that the man was completely alone in the world, but that he had one friend who he had met in the hospital when he was sick. And so in getting ready to officiate by Zoom at this funeral, I talked to the friend and she said that the only real thing she knew about him was that he never had anyone and that he was a Holocaust survivor. The very thing, the very thing that we had not mentioned out loud was indeed the truth. We were rescuing a Holocaust survivor from the fate of so many who died in the Holocaust without a burial. And so with Linda holding her phone so that we could see, some of the people in our shul who are part of things and I participated in the funeral of this man whose name was Herbert Pincus. And we said the Kaddish. And there is someone in our shul who has said Kaddish for him every day since.

When Linda called me, she did not know what to do. But she did the next right thing. And each person in the story did the next right thing.

When you do the next right thing, who knows what mitzvahs you’ll do? That’s what happens when you do the next right thing. How did we know what to do? It’s exactly when you don’t know what to do that Judaism tells us what to do.

Last Monday morning, after Rosh Hashanah, I was so tired I was bleary-eyed. I had left it all on the field. So I stumbled in here. And David Margolis was working on the technology and Jeff Gruen was getting ready to read Torah so I needed to lead the minyan. The group on Zoom was its usual happy and boisterous self. And Neal Madow started us off by announcing the page and it was my turn. And for just a second, I didn’t know what book I was looking at. And I said the blessings, “Blessed art Thou who feeds the hungry, Blessed art Thou who lifts the fallen, Blessed art Thou who gives strength to the weary.” And then I announced the next page. It was all set up for me. All I had to do was the ritual in the proper order. Judaism had given me my cup of coffee for the day. And I was back; I was myself again. And I knew what I needed to do in the day ahead: I had to feed the hungry and lift the fallen and give strength to the weary. That’s what we have to do for each other.
This is why we kept doing our services, morning and evening, throughout the virus’s dark days, and why we’ll keep doing them no matter what happens in the time ahead.
But frankly, we could use some help. And so I am asking you to do a very concrete and specific thing. Zoom in to our evening service, 6:45 on any weekday evening. The service in the months coming up takes 10 or 15 minutes. If this conflicts with your dinnertime, ask the butler or the cook to serve the meal a few minutes earlier or later. I’m sure they’ll understand, and they are welcome to Zoom in, too.

The Zooming and the Streaming that have made these High Holidays possible are the result of the fact that we have embraced the present no matter what it was doing to us. Unlike the kids who grew up dreaming of a past in the Dutch House, in the house of the past, we haven’t stayed stuck in the past. And after a while, this very strange and new thing has become a kind of temporary normal. All in the interest of keeping our community together. This is the right thing to be doing.

To do the next right thing, our lives must be informed by important principles.
Life is more important than money
Choose life
Respect the dignity of everyone
Females and males are both made in the image of G-d and everyone is equal whatever their skin color or even if they come from a blue state.
Black lives matter, a point that is made out of the pain of people feeling like they do not matter to our society
But we also shout that Jewish lives matter, like the family of Herbert Pincus who were murdered. We live in a time when horrible people say that the Holocaust never happened. What they are really saying is that they don’t care if it did or not.
And so the rockets continue to bomb Israel, but the Israelis keep rocking in the Red Zone, making the music of a resilient country.
To do the next right thing depends on our expectations of life. We have to recognize that life is not fair, that not everyone will like you; that people will not agree with your ideas. You have to have realistic expectations about your life.
And what about our expectations from our country and its leaders? We live in a country where a lot of people do not do the right thing
Who try to get us mixed up about what the next right thing is
Who blur right from wrong
Who blur reality and fantasy
Who do not face up to the realities of systemic racism

We’re in our cave, sheltered from the virus, but we have to ask ourselves: What can I do to make this country better?
As we say Yizkor, think about the people who we mourn. But also think about the over 200,000 lives that have been taken in the last year.
Think about the people who died trying to save others.
We cannot just mourn about the past. We cannot be frozen. We must emerge from these days of reflection and act.
At the end of Frozen II, Anna gathers enough willpower to emerge from the cave, to make her way out of the cave and save her sister. And step-by-step, she saves her kingdom. Just like her, we have to save our lives and our country, by doing the next right thing.