This unprecedented state of affairs demands of us a level of introspection that is also unprecedented
What distinguishes a chacham, a truly wise man, is the ability to view a situation from various perspectives and fully ascertain all sides of an issue — sometimes even conflicting and contradictory aspects of a single situation. One who has the ability to see but one side of the question “lo chacham yikarei,” is not termed a wise man. His vision is limited.
In the reality that we have now endured for almost a full year, we are confronted with contrasting and even opposing outlooks and angles.
We are undergoing a situation that is unprecedented in the history of the world. Before the development of rapid travel, people — and disease — could not get around very quickly. In the time of Rabi Akiva Eiger there was an epidemic, but back then it took several days to travel two hundred miles east from Posen to Warsaw, or two hundred miles west to Berlin. If an infected individual left Posen, by the time he arrived at his destination — if in fact he even arrived — chances are good that he was no longer contagious.
A few decades later saw another epidemic, during the time of Rav Yisrael Salanter. The advent of train travel meant that one could get from Salant to Vilna or Grodno within a day or two. This made it possible for an epidemic to infect over a million people in the course of a year. Nevertheless, disease could not move quickly and when it did spread, it was not really a pandemic; it was rather a rolling epidemic that moved from place to place slowly over the course of more than twenty years.
This is not the case today. With widespread air travel, the virus that flares up in Wuhan on Sunday is in New York on Tuesday, and the new variant that’s in the United Kingdom on Wednesday is in Colorado on Friday. Hashgachah elyonah has set into motion a reality that allows a pandemic to overtake the entire world at once. Never has the world experienced such a phenomenon. Never has there been a catastrophe like this that has penetrated every far-flung corner of the globe at once.
This unprecedented state of affairs demands of us a level of introspection that is also unprecedented.
Especially for us, the chareidim l’dvar Hashem, this upheaval has overturned the foundation of our lives; it has put into closure, and into ongoing danger, all of our batei kedushah — our batei medrash, our yeshivos, our schools, and our shuls.
And so we stand back in shock and despair, wondering what precisely Hashem desires from us in response.
We have no historical hadrachah from gedolei olam how to deal with these precise circumstances. Of course not; we couldn’t have. The reality we are currently experiencing is like nothing they could have fathomed. And so we are left orphaned of a clear dei’ah, a clear knowledge of the proper response. Naturally, there will be different approaches and conflicting opinions, even among gedolei Yisrael.
My personal dei’ah is not of great importance or relevance in this forum. Instead, I wish to highlight certain hashkafos klaliyos, general principles, which we all need to focus on. These principles include contrasting perspectives that pull us in opposite directions. But a ben aliyah needs to be able to grasp all sides of the problem. Someone who has no room in his head for more than one side of the equation does not belong at the table for this discussion.
On the one hand, of course, ein davar omeid bifnei pikuach nefashos. Nothing overrides the primacy of pikuach nefesh. If the experts tell us that a specific course of action is necessary in order to save even one life, we must heed their advice. And we need to view it not as a gezeiras shmad — an edict meant to target and eradicate Torah observance — but as a gezeirah min haShamayim, a direct reflection of Hashem’s will. Such advice is not “optional” — we must adhere to it. We cannot push it aside and we cannot make light of it. All other deliberations must take a back seat to even a single nefesh achas mi’Yisrael.
On the other hand, Klal Yisrael cannot exist without Torah. We cannot exist without tefillah. And the truth is that as many korbanos have been lost over these past ten months, Rachmana litzlan, so too have there been many, many spiritual victims.
How many adults? How many bochurim? How many girls? How many people have become accustomed to or entrapped in behaviors that were previously unfamiliar to them? How many schoolchildren have suffered from the school closures and disruptions? Klal Yisrael has no kiyum shelo bimkom chiyuseinu; we cannot hope to exist while ignoring the true source of our existence. It is simply not an option to dispense with our ruchniyus infrastructure. All other considerations must take a back seat to our lifeblood.
These are two opposing and demanding perspectives, and every ben aliyah must fully grasp them both. Anyone whose heart is not seared by each of these reflections cannot participate in the conversation.
Consider someone who sits on a panel and readily decides to close the local schools and the shuls. Now ask him to make the same decision again, this time with the knowledge that by closing these institutions, he’d forfeit half of his material assets. If this person would start equivocating — wondering whether he could delay the closures a day or two before rushing ahead — then his opinion is not worthy of being considered. He has shown that he does not entirely grasp the full spiritual price of the closures.
The hearts of gedolei Yisrael are torn. On the one hand, they must safeguard nafshos Yisrael, the very life of their people. On the other hand: nishmas Yisrael — their souls.
There are several lessons we must learn from the events of the past year.
First, we must recognize that we have no kiyum other than as one Klal Yisrael. Not a single individual or single kehillah lives for itself. Likewise, no individual and no kehillah can think only about what works best for me, for us. Each individual must consider the needs of the entire tzibbur. I may have antibodies, and my shul might not be likely to be affected because of our specific situation — but in this tightly interconnected reality we all must act as one, so that nobody suffers a consequence of another’s laxity, Rachmana litzlan.
Second, a mindset has evolved that our olam is somehow above the power of the authorities. Some view the government impositions as mere barriers to be evaded, however possible. Another attitude has developed that we are not subject to the expertise and professional recommendations of the medical experts.
But such is not the derech haTorah. This was not the prevailing view in the era of Rabi Akiva Eiger and Rav Yisrael Salanter. Not only did Rabi Akiva Eiger insist on following the guidelines of the times, but he was awarded an honorary citation by the king of Prussia for his leadership in a time of pandemic. Are our kehillos being honored for our compliance?
None of the doctors of Rabi Akiva Eiger and Rav Yisrael Salanter’s times were Ivy League trained; none were such groise mumchim. Today we can clearly recognize just how primitive their medical awareness was. This was before the study of epidemiology, of microbiology, before the discovery of viruses; they still believed that illness was caused by “bad air.”
Rabi Akiva Eiger and Rav Yisrael Salanter, two of the most brilliant minds of their times, certainly could have mastered a level of knowledge in medicine comparable to that of the doctors of their day. But they didn’t choose that route.
Instead, Rabi Akiva Eiger wrote: “I have warned many times, again and again, that people should conduct themselves as the doctors have instructed and distance themselves from this, as if it were a forbidden food…. And one who contravenes the dictates of the doctors on proper behavior in this regard sins against Hashem, and his transgression is too great to bear.”
Similarly, Rav Yisrael wrote: “One must keep his conduct in line with what the expert physicians have instructed, such that he is guided by the light of their words [equally] as he is by our religion; for all those who commit themselves to follow the doctors’ directives in a wise manner, and not in a foolish way, will not see harm from any plague or disease…."
No matter that the doctors of the time were so primitive and their knowledge so limited; still Rav Yisrael claimed that the derech haTorah is to listen to the experts of the day, and he promised that no harm would befall those who adhered to their guidelines.
There is something else we have lost over these long months of the pandemic: We have lost our regard for a nefesh achas mi’Yisrael, a single Jewish life. Imagine our horror had we been told last Purim that over the next year, thousands of Jews would be lost from our kehillos. How shaken would we have been to hear, back then, that hundreds of thousands would perish in this country alone?
Now, unfortunately, we’ve become numb. We’ve lost that sensitivity.
If, since Succos, “only” dozens have been ripped away from us, nobody is moved. Shomu Shamayim. Is this what HaKadosh Baruch Hu wants us to take away from this tzarah?
Our behavior and our mindset must change. Even if we delude ourselves to believe that our kehillos are somehow safe, our behavior must reflect an awareness that we live in a country that is enduring a horrendous crisis. Thousands are perishing daily. Where is our Yiddishe hergesh of refinement and sensitivity to another’s pain?
I’m reminded of an anecdote I heard from my shver, the Long Beach rosh yeshivah, Rav Yitzchak Feigelstock shlita. More than 65 years ago, Rav Aharon Kotler asked my shver to accompany him on a hot summer day from Lakewood to a meeting in Philadelphia, pertaining to the founding of the Philadelphia Yeshivah.
As they were being driven back after a very long and tiring day, Rav Aharon was exhausted and hot; there was no air conditioning then in cars, and he was reclining on the back seat of the car, as my shver was sitting in front with the driver. As they came over the bridge from Philadelphia into New Jersey, Rav Aharon noticed, out of the corner of his eye, two 12-year-old non-Jewish boys hitching on the side of the road. Of course, with the gadol hador in the back seat, the driver sped along on his way. But Rav Aharon was unsettled.
“Did you see there were two boys on the side of the road looking for a lift?” he asked.
“I don’t pick up hitchhikers,” the driver said. “They can hurt you.”
“But they’re only kids — yungitchkes,” Rav Aharon insisted.
“Still, yungitchkes can also hurt you.”
Rav Aharon wasn’t pacified. “Di mama vet zorgen oif zei. Their mother will be worried about them.” And Rav Aharon kept at it.
My shver says that they traveled six miles past the bridge, and finally the driver asked Rav Aharon, “What does the Rosh Yeshivah want, that I should go back and pick them up?”
“Do you have a better idea?” he responded.
Sure enough they turned back, and yes, the two non-Jewish boys were still there. And so my shver joined the Rosh Yeshivah in the back seat, the two kids squeezed into the front with the driver, and the gadol hador drove the two kids home; az di mama zol nisht zorgen oif zei — so a mother somewhere in New Jersey shouldn’t worry needlessly about her children.
Rabbosai, we need to wake up. We need to strengthen our emunah and tefillah. Our chinuch needs to reflect a different sensitivity; our behavior needs to suggest a tangible eidelkeit — we are living through an eis tzarah.
May HaKadosh Baruch Hu speedily bring an end to our suffering with the ultimate salvation, and bring Mashiach b’meheirah b’yameinu, amen.
Rav Chaim Yehoshua Hoberman has served as rosh yeshivah at Mesivta of Long Beach for close to two decades. These thoughts were prepared for print from remarks originally shared at a recent Torah Umesorah conference for school principals.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 847.
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