The coronavirus pandemic has been profoundly nightmarish in countless ways. We lost numerous dear members of acheinu Bnei Yisroel, our mosdos Torah utefillah were shuttered, we have been locked down and frozen in our tracks, many of us lost jobs, and our nerves and patience were challenged beyond our imagination.
As we slowly awaken from this eis choshech and emerge from the cave of confinement and chaos, many people will become “Monday morning quarterbacks” and look back, assigning blame for much of what happened and spouting forth all types of political sevaros. While we should not ignore clear facts, there are nuanced points that, as Torah Jews, we dare not overlook in trying to understand what transpired as we move forward in our avodas Hashem under these most unusual circumstances.
Let us examine some pertinent areas and “hot” issues that are sure to be at the forefront of upcoming discussion.
Callousness and Conspiracy
The lockdowns in many states (those states led by liberal Democrats) lasted, and are still going strong, well beyond those of more moderate and Republican-led states. In California – a state with far fewer Covid-19 cases per capita than most other states – the lockdown has been extended through most of the summer (!). Many people in Los Angeles cannot even take their kids to the park. The local, radical politicians have almost created the likes of a police state, in which the government controls nearly every individual’s public movement.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when asked about her home state of California protracting its lockdown for three months until close to the fall, condescendingly replied to those suffering from job loss and anxiety that it is an “inconvenience” they must endure – all the while she is unaffected by it all and removed from the impact, as she remains employed with a handsome salary, and her $120 million-plus personal net worth keeps her quite comfortable.
Moving eastward, we cannot forget how the governor of the largest state in the Northeast responded to now-unemployed people complaining about the lockdown that cost them their jobs. The governor callously retorted to these poor laborers: “You want to go to work? Go take a job as an essential worker. Do it tomorrow.” Yes, people should suddenly become doctors, nurses and EMTs within the course of a day, so they can be employed the next morning. What an obnoxious thing to say. This governor, who is also a multi-millionaire, has no clue about what it means to be impoverished, jobless and hungry.
And let us not forget how this governor, in his March 25th state order, required nursing homes to admit highly-contagious Covid-19 patients, as he simultaneously denied the nursing homes personal protective equipment to safeguard against the grave sakonoh he was creating for the frail and vulnerable occupants of the nursing homes, explaining that “it’s not our job” to provide the masks, gloves and gowns necessary to prevent spread of the infection that his order introduced into these facilities. The governor’s policy resulted in the deaths of almost 6,000 nursing home patients. When challenged about the issue, the governor deflected, oddly blamed President Trump, and ordered his handpicked attorney general to conduct an investigation of the nursing homes’ practices (but not of his own blatant malfeasance), while contending that he himself is of course blameless. In fact, to promote his own image at every opportunity, this governor parades his family members and servile political allies at his daily press briefings, where these people are prompted to speak the governor’s praises, as they read scripted words of excessive laudation about the governor while he smiles away.
And please don’t remind us of the mayor of this state’s largest city, who ordered his police force to arrest people for not social distancing as required, but who released over 1,500 convicted criminals from jail in late March and early April, lest they contract the coronavirus in jail. This mayor and governor helped ban the use of disposable plastic bags, as a serious infraction subject to penalties, yet they support the legalization of recreational marijuana and lobbied to enact their state’s bail reform law, which has resulted in an astronomical spike in violent crime all over, with many deaths.
The entire scene is so surreal and incredibly bizarre – so absolutely crazy – that it begs for explanation. Some have suggested that these politicians and their ilk in blue states have purposefully made things as bad as possible in an effort to destroy the country and thereby blame President Trump as we head into elections. Others opine that these “leaders” are simply self-centered and do not care about the law-abiding, working class citizenry. And some theorize that these politicians’ actions are part of a nefarious and comprehensive conspiracy to strip people of their constitutional rights, stifling free speech and banning freedom of assembly in an effort to create a totalitarian society similar to the former USSR and North Korea.
Are these explanations correct? Perhaps. Who knows? The politicians are certainly inconsistent, appear to be hypocritical as they trample on basic rights, and leave an awful lot to be questioned, to put it lightly.
We will soon hear (at least in the conservative news media) about how Covid-19, the destruction of the economy and the educational system could have been avoided, and how all levels of government bungled and mishandled things, and perhaps schemed in the most despicable ways possible, resulting in death and desolation. Any ruchniyusdike message of this extraordinary pandemic will be lost. As described in my May 14th Yated article, Lessons of the Lockdown, the entire episode in terms of local governmental reaction has been a tragic and extreme folly, radically defying all logic. Hashem is obviously sending us a message. How, as Torah Jews, are we to respond?
The Ramban (on Shemos 15:14) addresses this point as pertaining to shibud Mitzrayim, explaining that there is a duality. On the one hand, Hakadosh Boruch Hu decreed that the Bnei Yisroel would be subjugated and then redeemed; the shibud was an inevitable gezeirah from Hashem, intended to achieve spiritual goals. To blame the shibud on Paroh and the Mitzrim would be sorely incorrect and a denial of Hashem’s mastery, as the shibud was destined to occur no matter what, for such did Hashem decree. On the other hand, the Mitzrim voluntarily, selfishly and maliciously persecuted and enslaved the Bnei Yisroel, as the Mitzrim enthusiastically provided their vicious services, so to say, in fulfillment of the decree upon the Bnei Yisroel, with the worst of intentions. For this, the Mitzrim were severely punished, as they used their bechirah for an exceedingly evil purpose. Shibud Mitzrayim was a gezeirah min haShomayim for us, and was at the same time a severe volitional transgression on the part of Paroh and his nation.
This is the meaning of the incident related in Avos (2:7): He (Hillel) once saw the skull (of a person murdered through drowning) floating on the surface of the water. He said to it, “Because you drowned (someone else), were you drowned, and ultimately, those who drowned you will themselves be drowned.” The person whose skull was floating was killed as a punishment from Hashem for that person’s heinous aveirah; he did not perish simply because someone stronger than he happened to succeed in forcing him under the water until he drowned. His death was decreed min haShomayim. However, the person who committed this second act of drowning, even though it was ordained by Hashem that the “victim” undergo the drowning, did so willingly, eagerly rendering his murderous services in fulfillment of the decree, with wicked intent, and hence is culpable for his act of retzicha.
This duality must be borne in mind when reading the news, be it about Covid-19 or anything else. All that transpires in history is from Hakadosh Boruch Hu; it is not due to political maneuvering, clever opportunists or foolish mistakes – period. But that does not absolve rogues and evildoers from their atrocious deeds, as they happily and with malevolent intent provide the means of punishment to fulfill an edict of middas hadin upon humanity. Hashem will pay them in kind if they volitionally or needlessly caused people to suffer physically, emotionally or financially. The coronavirus was a gezeirah from Hashem, and at the same time, those politicians whose negligent, selfish or malicious actions resulted in harm cannot be excused. These misdeeds were the vehicle for executing the gezeirah, but they were not the cause. This is a very nuanced and subtle concept, which involves the inscrutable relationship of Hashgocha and bechirah, only understood by Hashem Himself.
Jumping to Crazy Extremes
It appears that the lockdowns in most places are coming to an end, some sooner than others, and certainly more quickly than anticipated for all but a few locales. Expecting massive casualties and colossal closures, with society spinning out of control, a number of politicians, as well as educational and civic leaders, canceled major events many, many months in advance. Sporting, entertainment and cultural affairs were axed or postponed indefinitely, and some universities announced that academic sessions scheduled for almost half a year away (!) would not occur – at least not on campus. But now that states are suddenly reopening, those who declared these far-off closures and irrevocably scrapped plans are in a real bind. While this has no direct impact on most of us, those who jumped the gun did themselves a real disservice. Rather than waiting a reasonable amount of time and seeing where things go, leaving options open as much as possible, they went to an extreme – perhaps to display to the world how cautious and righteous they hold themselves out to be – and they are now paying the price.
Whether it is something mundane, and certainly if it is something of consequence, such as avodas Hashem, one needs to be prudent and not go to extremes in terms of charting out future plans. Burning bridges and acting rashly does no one any good, and the trillions of dollars lost and the damage to people’s education and businesses that these unnecessary and premature cancelations caused should be kept in mind.
But that is not all. When one jumps to cancel something, it often reflects on how important that thing is to the person. Let’s take the example of summer camp. For the world at large, summer camp is a great occasion for kids to have recreational fun and bond with friends. Nice – but not indispensable. It is thus no wonder that the Union for Reform Judaism, following popular trends, announced in late April that its summer camps would be closed this year due to the coronavirus. Several weeks later, it became clear that the Conservative movement’s 10 Ramah camps were also canceling for the summer. There was no effort to hold out for a decision by state governments and real-time medical assessments. It almost seemed as if these movements felt that they were advertising their performance of a mitzvah by announcing the far-advance closure of their camps.
In contrast, Orthodox camps almost uniformly have been holding out, waiting, lobbying hard and davening until the last second for a chance to open this summer. Why is this? Do frum people value recreation and having camp buddies so much more than everyone else?
Frum summer camps – be they official learning camps or “general” camps – are renowned for the unparalleled and robust Torah experience they provide. Learning in a new and relaxing atmosphere, davening with great ruach, special Shabbos programming and deeply moving Tisha B’Av observances are among the unique spiritual offerings of these machanos. Campers encounter Yiddishkeit in impactful ways that are usually not feasible at their local suburban or city shuls during the summer; it is priceless.
For Torah Jews, camp is a ruchniyus infusion for their children, and is thus precious and cherished. Such things are not easily forfeited, and if they can be attained safely, we will pursue them. This is why the battle to open summer camps is unheard of in the non-Orthodox world, and it is a mussar haskeil for our avodas Hashem year-round.
Yeshivos and Camps Versus Shuls
Boruch Hashem, we are now privileged to return to our shuls, albeit with quite strict limitations. This is a great zechus, but we need to take a step back for some important perspective.
When the “founding fathers” of contemporary American Torah Jewry immigrated to America, the first thing they did was not to establish the major shuls of their current communities. Rav Yosef Breuer, the major Chassidishe rebbes, the gedolei Lita and Poland, and all other Torah manhigim first established mosdos chinuch before building their kehillos’ main shuls. In my neighborhood of Washington Heights, Rav Breuer led a minyan in his apartment, and his kehillah then purchased an old dance studio to convert it into a makom tefillah rather than focusing on constructing the current K’hal Adath Jeshurun (KAJ) shul edifice, as putting energy into building the yeshiva (Yeshiva Rabbi Shamshon Raphael Hirsch) came first. Such was the practice of all major manhigei Yisroel on these shores, for they knew that Torah chinuch was the future of Klal Yisroel and must be our priority, before shuls. Jewish history has proven the correctness of this approach, as communities whose primary focus was Torah chinuch consistently thrived, while old shuls of communities that assimilated and thus disappeared are now abandoned buildings, churches and museums.
So while we thank Hashem immensely and celebrate the reopening of our shuls, let us not lose sight of the paramount “reopening” goal in terms of Yiddishkeit: the reopening of our yeshivos (and our camps, which serve as our primary summertime mosdos hachinuch). Obviously, this reopening can only be done once it is safe, and with proper health protocols, but it should be our uppermost priority.
Structure or Free-Float
Although the lockdowns have been extremely challenging for everyone, my observation is that those who maintained a daily structure fared much better than those who lacked a real schedule. The importance of having a structure was accentuated during this period, as some people did not know what to do with themselves, while others did their best to manage, adapt and grow.
As Klal Yisroel, we are blessed to have a system – the Torah – that provides us with a structure. Our entire existence is regulated as a comprehensive regimen of avodas Hashem 24/7. We must use the basics of this regimen to create a daily schedule that works optimally for us; we have learned the hard way how, without it, we flounder and fall.
There is a common saying in yeshivos: “Who is a masmid? He who keeps the sedarim.” The wisdom behind this adage is that most people will achieve maximally when they have a schedule and stick with it; such is the path to success. Most people accomplish much more by maintaining a workable routine than by spontaneously doing whatever comes to mind, even if there is great willpower and commitment to achieve without a formal structure.
A friend of mine has a relative who is a retired rov. This retired rov is a serious talmid chochom, but he remarked shortly after retiring (and not having a more solid structure to his day, despite his ability to learn a lot now) that retirement was the worst mistake in his life. My friend, who was about to announce his own retirement, thereupon changed his mind immediately.
Humility and the Invisible Killer
My recent Yated articles examined two manifestations of humility that emerge from the coronavirus matzav. I think that there is a third and more profound lesson of humility that must also be considered.
The latest medical findings indicate that Covid-19 is transmitted between people via microdroplets that are released when exhaling. This certainly makes sense to us non-scientists, as previous expert claims that the virus was transferred between people through sneezing and coughing seemed a bit off. Was it true that the over 5 million confirmed cases (and there are probably tens or hundreds of times this number in reality) all resulted from people sneezing and coughing on the people who became infected, or from residual sneeze and cough byproduct carelessly expelled onto surfaces? How often do people sneeze and cough all over others, and onto hands and furniture, etc., without cleaning it?
Because Covid-19 is transmitted so easily, simply by breathing, and because the majority of those who carry it are asymptomatic, the virus “fools” people, who become exposed to and contract Covid-19 without the foggiest idea that they are in its crosshairs and are being infected. Unlike other diseases regarding which people can sense the danger and are innately cautious, due to clear symptoms and visible indicators of the disease’s presence, the coronavirus is the invisible enemy, spreading like wildfire as people who appear perfectly fine and interact normally are in fact imparting the virus to everyone in their midst without anyone realizing it. This is how Covid-19 proliferated so pervasively and why taking the precautions to prevent it were challenging for many.
Some people do not accept things unless they can see them with the naked eye; these people are in denial of that which is beyond their limited human senses. While such an attitude can lead to sakonoh, kefirah and other awful things, for it is shortsighted and dangerous, it is in fact a prime expression of gaavah, conceit and arrogance, that “if I don’t see it, it must not exist.” One is so confident with his own perception and judgment that he imposes it on the entire world around him.
Although those who contracted the coronavirus typically did not harbor a sense of gaavah (and many of the victims were in fact great tzaddikim and talmidei chochomim), the pandemic drove home the truth that there are so many things that we cannot detect but are real, and refusal to acknowledge them from our limited perspective and understanding is the height of pomposity and can lead to acute peril. Let us take this lesson with us and be humbled to accept that there is so much that we cannot see or concretely know, and internalize the fact that we grasp so extremely little of what transpires in realms beyond our own. This is a tremendous mussar haskeil for our interactions bein adam laMakom and bein adam lachaveiro.
We continue to daven to Hakadosh Boruch Hu to redeem us from the current situation and to bring the geulah sheleimah as soon as possible. We also daven that we gain from these formidable experiences and use them to improve our avodas Hashem, as we better understand ourselves and appreciate how to approach and navigate the unexpected.