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Different, Not Indifferent

Surely, many of us have not in fact remained indifferent to what we went through over this period, but have instead used it to become different and better in some way


Different, not indifferent The arrival of new antiviral treatments coupled with the ubiquitous availability of vaccines has led even many of the more cautious experts to speak of turning the corner on Covid. New York Times writer David Leonhardt, for example, cites Dr. Robert Wachter, chair of the department of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, as one of those who “has begun to think about when most of life’s rhythms should start returning to normal. Increasingly, he believes the answer is: Now.” 

Dr. Wachter has decided to resume more of his old activities and accept the additional risk that comes with them, because, he explains, “if I’m not going to do it now, I’m probably saying that I’m not going to do it for the next couple of years, and I might be saying I’m not doing it forever.”

This is based, Leonhardt writes, on “the fact that the virus is unlikely to go away, ever. Like most viruses, it will probably keep circulating, with cases rising sometimes and falling other times. But we have the tools — vaccines, along with an emerging group of treatments — to turn it into a manageable virus, similar to the seasonal flu.” We can only hope the Borei Olam agrees. 

And if He does, that will present us with a final Covid challenge. As the disease recedes from the center of our lives toward the periphery, we will have one last opportunity to tap into the mix of emotions we once experienced — the dread, the confusion, but also the hisorerus — in order to bring about lasting changes in our lives. 

Those terrible and terrifying weeks and months when the coronavirus was tearing through our communities can seem both like ancient history, and just yesterday. The sharpness of specific memories of events may have dulled somewhat, but the heart can still come in touch with the feelings of that moment in time. We each have the scenes that remain with us. I remember watching a levayah on the computer, as a bare minyan of close relatives worked quickly, silently, bedecked in protective equipment, to bury their father, the mechutan of a close relative. It was surreal. 

But beyond the constant newsfeed of one petirah after the next, the never-ending wail of sirens, the hospitalized victims lying alone and helpless in their last moments in This World, there was the chilling uncertainty. Do you remember the morning of September 11, 2001, when rumors swirled wildly and everyone was certain more attacks were coming, the only questions being when, where, and by whom? We wondered, too, whether this plague would just intensify beyond imagination and eventually come for us all, a Black Death for modern times. People who’d never given a thought to putting their affairs in order took pen in hand for the first time to convey to their loved ones their wishes. 

Surely, many of us have not in fact remained indifferent to what we went through over this period, but have instead used it to become different and better in some way. It’s quite understandable, too, if many others haven’t. The principle of bechirah chofshis requires, after all, a certain equipoise in the world to enable people to freely choose whether to hear Hashem’s message or to ignore it. 

A huge, sudden, devastating klop like the one the coronavirus dealt us might well have forced us all to ineluctably acknowledge its Source. But that same crisis unleashed a long series of scientific, political, and social debacles and quarrels that continue until today, and these provide all the distractions one needs to avoid learning Covid’s spiritual lessons, should one choose to do so. 

On the communal level, however, changes instituted in response to the pandemic ought to be more readily discernible than they would be on the individual level. Are they? One very central communal institution where one might have expected to see more significant changes take place is the neighborhood shul. As a venue of both tefillah and Torah, it’s a nerve center of our spiritual lives.

But even more importantly, it’s the one main place that was taken from us so painfully during the thick of the crisis. And when, amid the dark of a galus in which we are prophet-less and thus incommunicado directly with the Divine, and we look about, searching for clues as to what needs fixing in our lives, gedolei Yisrael tell us to take a cue from the gezeiros that befall us. 

The Bach in Hilchos Chanukah writes that the Jews in the era of the Chanukah story had the Beis Hamikdash taken from them by the Syrian-Greeks because they became lackadaisical in performing the avodas hakorbanos. Torah leaders in various times have applied the axiom implicit in the Bach’s words to the travails of their day: When we treat an aspect of avodas Hashem as dispensable, it may well end up being dispensed with, against our will. Only then, do we hopefully gain an appreciation for what we’ve lost, after which it can be restored to us. 

It’s obviously both presumptuous and impossible to make a blanket statement about anything regarding our shuls. But a completely unempirical and entirely anecdotal survey would indicate that olam k’minhago noheig. Little has changed in the last year and a half in the problem areas many shuls grapple with. 

Here, I’ll focus on a big one: Talking. I’m not referring to the halachah that forbids uttering divrei chol — not words of lashon hara, sheker, or machlokes, but simply those unrelated to matters of kedushah — within the walls of a shul. That topic is both too difficult and too easy to address. Too easy, because it’s an uncontested halachah. But it’s also too difficult an issue to speak of, because it’s an endemic problem that’s been with us for a very long time and I have nothing to add to what’s been written and said about how to deal with it.

But perhaps there is an aspect of the topic that’s more in the realm of bein adam l’chaveiro than bein adam l’Makom. In many shuls and yeshivos — including some where a very admirable silence reigns throughout the tefillah and Krias HaTorah — the moment davening is over, the talking begins. And the chatter is not necessarily a new insight in the siddur, nor a he’arah on the daf. 

And all too often, the parties to these conversations seem oblivious to the fact that other people are still davening within earshot, sometimes right next to them. In the case of Maariv, or a Minchah with an abbreviated chazaras hashatz, they may well still be standing and speaking before their Creator — only now they’re struggling to do so over the din of multiple cross-shul conversations. 

Chazal teach that in earlier generations, very pious Jews would spend an hour in tefillah, which was itself preceded by an hour of preparation and followed by yet another hour in contemplation. The preparatory hour is easy to understand, but why the one following davening? Perhaps it’s because one naturally emerges from an emotionally impactful experience in a subdued, reflective state, and requires time to contemplate and process that experience. 

We’re far from the level of those pious ancestors. But can we try for five minutes of contemplative post-davening quiet, instead of feeling driven to immediately burst into unholy chatter? Not only will it be a chesed for the tefillah of those around us, but it can retroactively enhance our own. 

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 887)

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