How to Behave in Times of Crisis if You’re Frum and in Galus
I’ve never written a how-to guide before, mainly because I don’t know how to do very many useful things other than writing. My 15-year-old son put up our succah, and I’m proud of it. (Also, I drove him to Home Depot and waited in the car, and it’s not as easy as you might think.)
But I want to try to start this conversation. It’s called How to Behave in Times of Crisis if You’re Frum and in Galus.
I grew up davening in a large, bustling shul with a very distinguished rav. Shalosh Seudos each week was held in an upstairs room, and when it was over, after bentshing, there was a Maariv minyan in that room. But the Rav himself made his way downstairs back to the main shul for his Maariv minyan. My father always directed me to the join him at the Rav’s minyan. It started several minutes after the first minyan, and it took longer as well. By the time the Rav was finishing Shema, the upstairs people were holding car keys. It was rough. There were Pirchei Melaveh Malkahs and ice-skating and hockey games beckoning, and I was trapped. I complained and asked my father why I couldn’t daven upstairs, in that perfectly fine minyan.
In fewer words than it will take me to write this, he basically said that in life, there are always going to be choices, and a person has to pick where they want to put themselves. “Your place should always be with the Rav,” my father said. “Check where he is, and be right there.”
I don’t know if I appreciated it then but now I get it, a bit. There’s a civil war brewing — and it’s not just about masks, compliance, or social distancing. I don’t know who’s right but my father’s advice is good. If your shul is split, if your neighborhood is split, if your kehillah is split, check where the rav is, check where the talmidei chachamim are — and head over there. It’s safer there, warmer there, and truer there.
Another story. One of the great baalei tzedakah of this generation told me how he was staying in an upscale Jerusalem hotel, when one of the great collectors of the Holy City (yes, they have a few over there) started circulating in the lobby soliciting funds. This guest was irritated, because the collector in question is known to be financially stable, and each donation he took deprived those more in need than he. There was a large sign in the lobby forbidding solicitors, so the American visitor informed the hotel manager that there was a collector in the lobby, in violation of the regulations. The manager escorted the trespassing collector out.
Later, the American felt badly, uncertain if he’d done the right thing, and when he returned home, he asked his rosh yeshivah. The Rosh Yeshivah showed him a gemara in Maseches Shabbos (118b):
Rabi Yosei said, “May my portion be among those who are ‘moshivei beis hamedrash’ and not those who are ‘maamidei beis hamedrash.’ ” Rashi explains that he hoped to be one of those who announced that the time for seder had arrived, rather than the ones who announced the end of seder, reminding the talmidim to go home and eat.
This rosh yeshivah asked what the difference was. Where were the holy Tannaim going after seder? Only to do Hashem’s Will by eating a bit and seeing their families, perhaps to rest so that they could learn with more strength. Was there shame in reminding them that seder was over?
“Veist ois, it would seem,” the Rosh Yeshivah concluded, “that there are mitzvos vos m’ken zei luzen fahr an anderer, there are mitzvos better left to others.”
The past few months have seen some new mitzvos, rare mitzvos we’re not used to.
There is the mitzvah of reporting illegal minyanim and posting pictures on social media. The mitzvah of calling elected officials to make sure they know.
To compensate for this, we have the mitzvah of beating up mosrim, a moser in this case being anyone who irritates you with his call to wear a mask. (Even if he walked into a crowd hoping to be pushed around, so that he could get attention and sympathy and underscore just how uncivilized the community “he loves so deeply” is, it’s still wrong. We’re bigger than that and classier than that. It’s not how talmidei chachamim act.)
Leave these mitzvos for others. We’re not that kind of nation, and not the first nor the second — neither reporting wrongdoing by other Jews to authorities nor exacting vigilante justice with fists on those we don’t like — are Jewish behaviors. Drop it. Find other mitzvos. There’s no shortage.
(One caveat. If your lifestyle prior to March 2020 indicated a deep, single-minded dedication to the well-being of your brothers and sisters — i.e., if you were a Hatzolah volunteer, a medic, the sort of doctor who would interrupt his Shabbos meal to help people, a superb rebbi or morah — then if you advise people to mask up or the like, you aren’t making this your mitzvah, it’s part of your essential shlichus, of course. If, however, you’re a reporter looking to score points and retweets from secular and non-Jewish journalists on the backs of your “backward” — or even more condescending, “ignorant” — brethren, go find a cleaner way to support your family, maybe as a dealer at a casino or something.)
Things are murky, and I have no real guidance to offer, so I refer you back to the first story. Your community or kehillah certainly has talmidei chachamim and rabbanim. They were taking calls in middle of the night, advising and directing and counseling, long before COVID came along. They earned the right to an opinion by having devoted themselves to the source of correct opinion. So find out where the Rav stands, and find a seat in the dugout. Let that be your team.
In the absence of a single public position, all sorts of small-time actors are scampering around the stage. It’s tempting to get riled up, to protest and scream and follow the guy wielding the wire-cutters, ready to bash open the playground gates with a crowd of curiosity-seekers and teenagers behind him, but consider checking if there are any talmidei chachamim next to you before you get swept into the fairy-tale.
I don’t know what will be on the other side, the collateral damage of COVID, the broken kehillos and friendships and deep-seated disrespect and acrimony being sown as we speak. But this I know, because my father told me so: If you’re with the right people, aligned with those who see good in Jews and seek good in Jews, and, for a couple of thousand years now, have been the only light guiding us through exile, then you might not chase the crisis away, but at least you’ll survive it.
We don’t know what. And we don’t why. But we do know where. Find that place, and don’t move. This will pass, and when it does, make sure you can still recognize yourself.
Seichel helps. Knowing history helps. And if you have access to none of those things, perhaps this will help. Stay grounded, stay focused, and stay on the right team.
May Hashem have mercy on all of us.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 831)
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