The conditions necessary to address the sin of avodah zarah in our midst
The generation of Ikvesa D’Meshicha, the time just before the Messianic era, will be, according to the Vilna Gaon, a dor chitzoni — a superficial generation focused on the external, to the exclusion of the internal. That would be us.
And as Rav Eliyahu Dessler elaborates, this is true of both the generation’s aveiros and its mitzvos. Its weakness will be not for philosophy but for gluttony, its undoing will not be Kant, but cant. This thoroughgoing externality will infect the good things people do, too, which will come to derive not so much from spiritual desires within as from material incentives from without, or, worse, simply from going unthinkingly with the flow of what everyone else is doing, too.
In a situation like that, what’s an Almighty G-d to do? During a family discussion about these disturbing points, my brother-in-law, Reb Avrohom Beer, pointed me toward a Michtav MeEliyahu (3:133) that’s particularly prescient of our present predicament. Rav Dessler quotes a letter of the Ramchal in which he explains why Heaven sometimes sees to it that we suffer the deprivation of our spiritual resources, such as the passing of tzaddikim, the enactment of decrees against mitzvos, the shuttering of yeshivos and the destruction of sifrei kodesh. Or, closer to home right now, when a pandemic and the ensuing responses to it accomplish some of the same.
The Ramchal says Hashem brings these things about in order to create the conditions necessary to address the sin of avodah zarah in our midst. Since that is an internal aveirah, which uproots the emunah existing in our hearts and minds, it thus requires a correspondingly internal response.
To that end, Hashem removes the spiritual supports that buttress us from without — the teachers of Torah, the yeshivos and sefarim, the shiurim and the tefillos — so that we can no longer count on these external factors to keep us humming along on spiritual automatic pilot. The Divine intent is to force us to dig deep within to find the resources to recreate ourselves as spiritually alive beings, learning Torah and doing mitzvos because we really want to, not because it’s the thing to do or earns us positions and plaudits.
Rav Dessler compares Hashem’s removal of tzaddikim from our midst and the deprivation of other vehicles for spiritual growth to a risky medical operation. There’s no question that the surgeon is inflicting a grave bodily wound, but if the blockage of the arteries is undone or the tumor removed, thereby saving the patient’s life, it will all have been very worthwhile.
Only in that way “is there hope,” he writes, “that when a person must toil with his own efforts to come in contact with his penimiyus, that his heart will be truly close to Hashem and his yirah will be pure, not reflexive and externally driven….To reveal just one point of holy and pure penimiyus, there’s no value one can put on that, it’s worth bearing and sacrificing anything for that.”
Sometimes, the challenge may be to figure out how to learn well even without a rebbi and chaveirim and a yeshivah setting, how to daven with fervor despite the absence of an inspiring baal tefillah and the enjoyable singing of the tzibbur. In other situations, the challenge may inhere in the very effort of a person to overcome obstacles and make his way back to his yeshivah or shul, or to make sure the yeshivah’s learning and the shul’s davening are not interrupted in the first place.
In either case, the goal is to work up the spiritual sweat that comes from pushing back against the external obstacles that stand in the way toward spiritual achievement. Only then can those achievements be considered truly yours, not just things you do because you’re being carried along by the societal tide.
Perhaps now is the time to reframe. Chazal caution us that when we experience anti-Semitic aggression, we must focus not on the attack dog but on the message being conveyed to us by He Who has allowed the beast to come after us. And sometimes, as Ramchal has taught us, the message Heaven is sending is that we need, finally, to give up our shallowness, to go deeper into ourselves to find the spiritual resources denied us by Jew-haters with their oppressive decrees and public book burnings. What a missed opportunity it would be were we to miss the forest for the decrees, putting all our energy into venting about the accursed anti-Semites instead of using the wake-up call to develop our internality and forge a real bond with our Creator.
The very same danger exists when the Divine message is being transmitted to us through the medium of a worldwide health crisis that triggered, albeit to a far lesser degree, some of the same spiritual deprivations as those oppressive decrees our ancestors once experienced (and especially when ill will toward our community may sometimes play a role, too). Do we want to be a community that, as the saying goes, “never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity” that the Creator is trying to give us?
Everywhere one goes, all the talk one hears is about the attack dog, rather than its Master: To wear or not to wear a mask, and when and where and how; of herd immunity and second waves and potential treatments; of the societal and political and religious implications of every last aspect of the pandemic; of whether and when a vaccine will arrive and will it be safe; and on and on and on. And, perhaps, the obligation of hishtadlus permits or even requires some of that discussion.
But one can wonder: Might He Who Sits in Heaven be waiting for all the chatter to subside, looking down and hoping we will look up?
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 829. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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