COVID-19 tests us individually and communally
"We are all being tested now,” my rav commented to me after a recent Shacharis. The immediate trigger for the comment was tension caused by enforcement of the government requirements with respect to the number of people allowed in shuls.
As Israel’s new coronavirus czar, Dr. Ronnie Gamzu admitted recently, the requirement of no more than ten people in any enclosed space, without any consideration of the overall area, makes no sense. In my shul, for instance, ten people are also allowed in the ezras nashim, which is about one-quarter the area of the shul downstairs. I have been motioned to go upstairs several times while standing in an unoccupied quadrant of the shul, without a single person within six meters of me. (The counterargument is that ten and no more is a clear rule, whereas relying on adequate distancing and masks, even where both rules are obviously being observed, will generate too many interpretive debates.)
On the morning in question, I had been asked to move from my seat by the window by the fellow a row behind me sitting on the aisle, even though I had been one of the first ten in the minyan. My seat, he pointed out, was not marked with green masking tape — a holdover from an earlier period when we were trying to maintain a two-meter separation between all those davening.
I went to stand at the back of the shul — albeit not without a bit of grumbling. But as I noted later, the seat immediately behind me, in the same row as the fellow who asked me to move, was marked with green tape. I don’t remember much from high school geometry, but I am pretty sure that the hypotenuse of a right triangle is longer than either of the other two sides.
The rav shared with me that he had been dismayed by the illogical request for me to move. But he had a larger point: If I would know the kind of strains the person in question is going through — some because of COVID-19 — I would not have even grumbled. And similarly, had he been privy to some of my worries, he would not have made his request.
That is one aspect of what he meant by “We are all being tested.” If we would think about the impact of COVID-19 on the lives of our fellow Jews, we would find it easy to judge them favorably.
BUT THE RAV’S concerns encompass much more than frayed nerves in shul, or even how the Yamim Noraim davening will happen. “You have no idea how terribly disruptive this has been to the entire frum community,” he continued.
Though this comparison is overblown, I thought of Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky’s comments on the devastating impact of World War I on Eastern European Jewry. As Jews in Poland and Lithuania fled eastward, away from the front lines, families became separated and the traditional sources of parental and communal authority were lost. A rapid decline in religious observance between the two world wars, especially among the younger generation, was the result.
In a similar fashion (though of far lesser magnitude), the regular rhythms of our lives have all been thrown out of whack. Many yeshivah bochurim, for instance, have been outside of any yeshivah framework for months. The rav mentioned a rosh yeshivah who had informed him of his plans to create a capsula — a framework in which the entire group does not leave the yeshivah for a two-week period — for the outstanding bochurim in his yeshivah.
My rav responded that his first priority should not be to create a capsula for the metzuyanim, who would, in any event, keep learning no matter where they are, but davka for the less-strong bochurim.
Something that I read more than a decade ago in a pamphlet published by Torah Umesorah entitled “Why and How to Teach Emunah,’ by Rabbi Dovid Sapirman of Toronto speaks directly to the present moment. In that essay, Rabbi Sapirman made the point that it is impossible to describe many yeshivah bochurim, even some regarded as outstanding, as baalei emunah, as believing, or for that matter, not believing. Rather they are “simply moving along a conveyor belt,” which, if all goes well, will take them from cradle right through kollel. As long as nothing upsets the patterns of their lives, they may be entirely normative in their behavior, and even perfectly happy.
The problem, however, arises — or rather becomes manifest — if they are faced with a serious temptation, one that requires serious conviction to resist. Or if life does not work out as it is “supposed to” — e.g., if tragedy befalls the bochur or his family, the perfect shidduch does not materialize, or illness strikes. A “robotic lifestyle” will not suffice.
That is the situation that many young bochurim, and some not so young, face currently: the conveyor belt has stopped. The normal rhythms of life have ground to a halt.
That was what my rav meant when he said, “We are all being tested.” In many respects, our communities have passed with flying colors. Tzedakah contributions to those hit hardest by the coronavirus, as well as to causes that continue to require support, are one such area.
But, if I understood the rav correctly, fissures have also appeared, fissures that go to the very heart of our social fabric. And these must be noted and attended to so that we can better prepare for the next major disruption.
If we have learned anything from the crisis, it is how vulnerable we all are. And knowing that requires strengthening the spiritual resources needed for those periods of greatest vulnerability. _________________________________________________________________
Our Forgotten Great Deeds
In Faith Amid the Flames, Reb Yossele Friedenson relates a story that contains an invaluable lesson. He and his wife were vacationing in Grindelwald, Switzerland. A Jew from Israel, who was also vacationing in the area and met Reb Yossele every day in shul, was obviously very excited to see him. But Reb Yossele had no idea who the man was, and was too embarrassed to ask him given his evident delight in meeting him.
Fortunately, after a few days, the Jew realized that Reb Yossele did not remember him, and undertook to refresh his memory.
They had both been in the displaced persons camp in Feldafing after liberation. The Yamim Noraim were approaching, and Reb Yossele made every effort to convince his fellow survivor to join the minyan of his Polish shtibel. But the man replied that he was finished with religion after the Gehinnom he had experienced.
That reaction, incidentally, was extremely common among survivors from even the most religious homes. I recently watched a video of Rabbi Avitan Menachem telling a story about the Bobover Rebbe, Rabbi Shlomo Halberstam ztz”l. For several successive weeks, the Rebbe invited a Jew smoking a cigarette on Shabbos, who had been a baal tefillah before the war, to lead the Rebbe’s minyan.
When the Rebbe’s son protested that the man was a mechallel Shabbos b’farhesia, his father told him, “That’s not him smoking. That’s Hitler yemach shemo smoking.” Many years later, a man approached the Rebbe to invite him to be mesader kiddushin at his granddaughter’s wedding, and identified himself as that baal tefillah. The Rebbe declined, but came to the sheva brachos, where the grandfather sat in full chassidish regalia, surrounded by a large family of more than 100 grandchildren similarly attired.
Now, let me return to Reb Yossele. Eventually, he persuaded his fellow survivor to join the Rosh Hashanah davening, and, the man related, “the warm baalei tefillah and the Yamim Noraim niggunim from Vurka, Modzhitz, and Gur brought me back.”
And now, 30 or more years later, the man proudly told Reb Yossele that his two sons were already beki’im in Shas, and that a daughter who came to Minchah every day has a husband who declined to come on vacation because he viewed it as bittul Torah.
By urging his fellow survivor to join a minyan for Rosh Hashanah, Reb Yossele had indirectly reawakened his Jewish soul and brought him generations of nachas. And yet Reb Yossele had no memory of the incident.
And that’s worth thinking about every day: Our greatest impact may come from actions that we will not even remember years, much less ten minutes, later.
Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 823. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at email@example.com
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