Despair is Not a Jewish Word

Yerushalayim lay in ruin, the Second Bais Hamikdosh destroyed, and the smell of death was in the air throughout the city. Rome was now at the height of its glory. It minted coins with the picture of a young weeping woman, representing Yerushalayim, crying, with the words Judea Capta, Judea is captured. Vespasian, the Roman general, laid siege to Yerushalayim, leading to mass starvation and illness. When he was called to become the Roman emperor, his son Titus was appointed to replace him and finish off the job.

“He will say, ‘Where is their god, the rock in whom they sought refuge’” (Devorim 32:37). This refers to Titus Harasha, who shamed and blasphemed toward heaven. What did he do? He entered the Kodesh Hakodoshim, spread out a Sefer Torah, and committed adultery on top of it. He then took a sword and cut the paroches, from which blood miraculously came out. Then he took the paroches and used it as a container in which he gathered all of the holy vessels of the Bais Hamikdosh. Boarding a ship together with his treasures, he anticipated great honor when he would arrive in Rome.

During the voyage back home, a fierce storm threatened to sink the ship. But the proud and mighty Titus was not fazed in the slightest. He declared arrogantly, “It seems that the G-d of the Jews only possesses strength on the water. When Paroh chased after them, He drowned him in the Yam Suf. When Sisra came against them, He washed him away in the Nachal Kishon. Now, too, he is trying to drown me in the Mediterranean. If He is truly strong, let Him ascend to dry land and wage a war against me there.”

A bas kol emanated from heaven, saying, “Rasha the son of a rasha, the grandson of Eisav Harasha, I have a simple creature in My world, a tiny gnat. Ascend to the shore and do battle with it!”

When Titus reached dry land, a gnat entered his nostril, going straight to his brain, where it pecked away for seven years. When Titus died, they opened his brain and found that the tiny gnat had grown considerably, its mouth made of copper and its nails of iron (Gittin 56b).

These are earth-shattering times we live in. Never in our lifetime have we seen anything like it. Such an advanced society in science, medicine and technology, a wealthy culture with comforts and inventions never seen before. Such a busy world filled with activity and travel to the most remote lands. It is a world filled with the pursuit of riches and fame. And all of a sudden, it is brought to a halt. It’s as if the entire world has stopped. What happened?

Similar to Titus, a microscopic bug, the coronavirus, has brought the entire world to its knees. At first, it was hitting distant lands, with no reason for us to be concerned, but suddenly, without allowing us any time for preparation, it arrived on these shores and in Eretz Yisroel, and like a boa constrictor, it has wrapped itself around society. People are gripped with fear of the unknown, as no one has a clue how to cure this mysterious malady, and it is being reported that perfecting an effective vaccine for this is at least a year away.

Shomu amim yirgazun… The Wall Street moguls heard and were agitated. Terror gripped the commissioners of the sports leagues. Then the chieftains of the country were confounded. Trembling gripped the presidents of universities. The dwellers of the country were dissolved. Everything has come to a standstill. The stock market, which was doing so well under the Trump administration, is plummeting drastically every day. Who would ever believe that all professional sports would cease their activities? The NCAA basketball championships, better known as March Madness, which usually has the country in a frenzy, and America’s national pastime, baseball, have been postponed indefinitely. The Broadway theaters, St. Patrick’s Day parade, restaurants, taverns, and all forms of public recreation have been closed. The airline industry has basically been shut down. And what has brought about this panic? Hashem’s microscopic bug.

People have lost their fortunes and parnassah overnight. This topic occupies the hearts and minds of the public 24/7. The president and his able staff give us daily reports on what is being done to help the situation and to try and calm our nerves. But they have to compete with the news media, which is constantly publicizing the latest score sheet of how many people have tested positive for the virus in each locale and how many deaths there are r”l in each country and in each state.

Yes, there is constant chatter about this plague, but there is one important word missing from the conversations: the name of Hashem. You hear about an argument as to what the virus should be called. Is it politically correct to associate it with China or is it being xenophobic? New terms such as “social distancing” and “flattening the curve” have been coined. We are being apprised daily about the establishment of new testing centers and more cautionary measures to be taken. But no mention of Hashem’s name.

There is a lot of espousing of “kochi ve’otzem yodi,” how we have it in our power to conquer this latest menace to society. But they’ve all missed the point of all this. How fragile we are. How dependent we are on the Ribono Shel Olam. How all of the advances in the field of medicine cannot help us if it is not His will that we be safe.

The mind imagines the worst. And it is helped along by the news media.

True story: A few weeks ago, on Erev Shabbos, when there wasn’t yet any cause for alarm in our country, I was in ShopRite and suddenly felt a bit queasy. This tends to happen to me in a crowd where there are more germs in the air. I looked up, and standing right near me was an elderly Chinese-looking couple. Horror of horrors, they were right next to a stack of cases of Corona beer. I made a mad dash to the other side of the store. That’s how the mind can play games with us.

One hears fear-mongering. What will be with the economy? This will cause a financial tsunami from which we will never be able to recover. People are losing jobs, businesses will close. Blah blah blah…

Stop! We are being exposed to the newscasters and pundits, products of the secular culture, where if you mention the name of Hashem, you’re looked at as strange. But we are made of a different mettle. We are the children of Avrohom, Yitzchok and Yaakov, who in the most trying of times placed their faith in Hashem. He has helped us survive throughout our turbulent history and He will help us again this time.

When I was a bochur, our family had the zechus of davening in the shul led by the Monostricher Rebbe, Rav Yitzchok Yoel Rabinowitz zt”l. He was quiet and humble, a talmid chochom of note revered by all. One Shabbos, he noticed that an elderly man in the shul looked like he wasn’t feeling well and the rebbe insisted that he go home. The rebbe and his son escorted the man. On the way there, they stopped for a few moments to give the man a chance to rest. Suddenly, they were surrounded by a few teenage brutes looking for some fun.

One of them reached over the rebbe’s shoulder and pulled his beard. The tzaddik turned around and promptly slapped him across the face, much to the shock of his son. The teenagers fled in fear. Afterwards, his son asked in wonder, “Tatte, how did you do that? They were big and strong!” The rebbe answered plain and simple, “A tzelem Elokim is not afraid.”

This is the attitude that we must have. Should we be concerned about the situation? Absolutely. We must follow the advice of our rabbonim and doctors that this must be taken very seriously. We must be extra careful with our personal hygiene and practice social distancing. Caution, yes. Panic, no. Despair is not a Jewish word.

Another serious matter to fear is the closing of our chadorim, day schools, yeshivos, and botei knesses, for these are our real pipelines to receive life, sustenance and blessing from Hashem. Under these difficult circumstances, we must put extra emphasis on our limud haTorah and tefillah. Like the Yidden by the Yam Suf, we must grab onto the craft of the avos, crying out to Hashem to remove this tzarah.

As we enter the month of Nissan, the season of emunah, we can use this as an opportunity to reinvigorate our relationship with Hashem. Pay no attention to the dire predictions on the radio and the internet. Practice social distancing from the social media, as they can only make you meshugah. “Cast upon Hashem your burden and He will sustain you” (Tehillim 45:23). “He’emanti ki adabeir” (Tehillim 116:10). You gain more emunah the more you talk about it.

Now is a perfect time to stop and think and appreciate the chassodim that Hashem has bestowed upon us by putting us in a country where we can serve Him freely and in comfort. For many centuries in golus, this was not the case. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. We should cherish those moments when we can daven and learn in our botei knesses and botei medrash without any concern.

The panic has also caused people to rush to the stores and hoard all kinds of items. They are storing goods in their homes for months, afraid that they will be left without basic necessities. The shelves in many stores are empty and you cannot get toilet paper or hand soap. This should give us clarity as to what an impoverished person feels like. The fear of not having. Except that our fears are imagined, while theirs are real. It should encourage us to step up to the plate and do all we can to help them, especially before Yom Tov.

This is also an opportunity for practicing good middos. You don’t have to hoard all of the soap and toilet paper for yourself. Have consideration for others and be considerate of their needs.

The mind can imagine happy scenes, as well. Maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of great things to come. Perhaps the world is being silenced so that when that greatest of events, the coming of Moshiach, occurs soon, they will not be distracted by all of their vices. Rather, they will be focused on the miracles of our geulah and learn from them as well.

We say in the Haggadah, “Uvemorah gadol…zu giluy Shechinah – With great fearfulness…this refers to the revelation of the Divine Presence.” Perhaps that is what this frightful situation is all about.

It is believed that this dangerous virus came from people eating bats. In Perek Shirah, the song of the bat is, “Nachama, Nachamu, Ami… Comfort, comfort My people, says your G-d” (Yeshayah 40:1). We won’t know until the geulah comes, but we can hope and imagine.