Going Forward the Torah Way

Sometimes it’s all in the pronunciation. I once heard my rebbe, Rav Shlomo Zalman Friedman zt”l , the Tenka Rov, asking someone where he had been all week. The man answered in Yiddish, “Rebbe, ich hob ah virus.” The rebbe apparently couldn’t resist in responding, “D’hust aveiros? Ti teshivah!”

The rebbe was always the smartest person in the room and probably was not merely making a play on words – virus, aveiros. He was probably reflecting Chazal’s statement that “one who sees suffering come upon him should search for the spiritual cause and repent,” i.e., ti teshivah.

Now that Shavuos is behind us and many of us have returned to some semblance of tefillah b’tzibbur, we must be very careful to consider the connection between a virus and aveiros, no matter what form of pronunciation we follow.

Making this connection does not necessarily imply true aveiros in the sense of sins. Rabbeinu Saadya Gaon very famously taught that teshuvah requires constant improvement, not only eradication of outright evildoing. Many shuls, including my own, have been working on kabbalos – commitments – to make and take on when we return to full davening with no social distancing. No one knows when that will be, but no one has to be smart enough to be a ro’eh es hanolad to predict what is coming. We have all seen the suffering, the death and now economic devastation. While the rest of the world is wallowing in political speculation, superficial scientific and social analysis, lobbying and influence peddling, we Torah Jews must look inward as fast as we can. There are those who speak knowledgably of a “second wave,” G-d forbid, and long-range ramifications of the fight against Covid-19. Even though our wonderful shtadlanim must do some of this as well, the rest of us should put the stethoscope on our neshomah instead of our lungs for now and listen to the sounds of the spirit.

First of all, a number of fine individuals and organizations have begun the process of trying to reduce the size and soaring costs of our simchos. Whether a lechayim, vort, chasunah or bar mitzvos, many people have struggled to keep up with the impossible escalation of what should be happy moments. Instead, countless people have fallen into debt just to celebrate a life-cycle event. We should have undoubtedly tackled this long ago, but now it is not only urgent; it has become life-threatening for those who have descended into despair and depression.

To state the obvious, for the past three months or so, many scaled-back and reduced simchos have taken place all over the world. The couples are, boruch Hashem, happily married, and the bar mitzvah boys are still putting on tefillin and davening beautifully. Many are shteiging as never before. Is this not the moment?

Although, as I have written before in these pages, we no longer have nevi’im, so we cannot draw dotted lines between events and causes, logic tells us that there are patterns and charts here that we can all read and interpret. But perhaps Klal Yisroel, as a whole, has gone a bit off the derech. No, not the road of frumkeit, shemiras hamitzvos and even hasmadah in Torah. But the road leading to excess and extravagance opens into a dead-end highway full of danger, both financial and spiritual. I worry tremendously when I hear people speaking longingly of “returning to normal.” If that means davening b’rov am, if that means botei medrash packed with chavrusos, if that means shining little faces singing their pesukim together, let the yearning continue until it has been requited and satisfied. But if people just can’t wait for the giant bloated chasunos, for the music at simchos turning into concerts given by the famous, then one wonders what we have learned from the mageifah. I am aware that a few major organizations, headed by gedolei Yisroel, have addressed this subject, but I feel that this is the time for all of us to offer chizuk to these changes.

Let us remind ourselves how people lived just a few short generations ago. Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger (Peninei Rabbeinu Yechezkel) related a shmuess given by Rav Yechezkel Abramsky zt”l, author of the Chazon Yechezkel. He told the story of his arrival in Novardok in 1903. He entered the home of the Alter for his farher, but there was not a single unbroken chair upon which to sit. The Alter of Novardok was so pleased with the young Yechezkel’s shtickel Torah that he called his grandson and declared, “A lamdan such as this deserves to be rewarded with a cup of sweet tea.” He thereupon sent him to the grocery store to buy (on credit) “a cube of sugar” to sweeten the tea. That was how our great people lived just a century ago. We can certainly keep ample sweeteners in the house and offer our guests a chair that doesn’t wobble. On the other hand, there should be limits, as well.

How do we decide upon those limits? Let us be guided by one of the geniuses who learned from the Gaon of Vilna. A man once approached Rav Shlomo Zalman of Volozhin, known fondly as Reb Zelmele, the brother of Rav Chaim, pouring out his soul. “Everyone thinks I am a rich man,” he bemoaned, “but I know the bitter truth. I am marrying off my daughter, and according to my station in the community, I am expected to invite a large number of people to the chasunah. However, I cannot afford this tremendous expense. What should I do?”

The wise Reb Zelmele opened a Chumash and learned with the apprehensive baal simcha. “There are two chasunos in Tanach,” he began. “When Lavan made a wedding, the posuk says that ‘he invited all the residents of the place and made a party.’ Lavan, being an unscrupulous person, didn’t consider consequences or think about the next day. He wanted to make a lavish feast. However, when Boaz, who was a rich man, made a wedding, he invited 10 elders, no more, to the wedding. In addition, he made sure that his guests were all older people who don’t eat or drink too much. You, too, should learn from Boaz rather than from Lavan.”

With the reading of Rus just behind us, we, too, should remember that Boaz was not under any edicts of social distancing, but he followed the Torah way of limiting his simchos.

It may be edifying to note that in the year 5427 (1667), the Vaad Arba Aratzos (Federation of the Four Towns) enacted the following limitations: 20 people at a bris, 30 people at a wedding, which must include two poor people. The chosson was allowed to bring 5 friends (Sefer Lama Tisrau, page 33). The Noda B’Yehudah (Mofes Hador, page 26) declared that “it is an avon pelili, a horrific sin, to overspend on simchos,” and proceeded to set severe limits, “which applied to everyone equally.” Rav Moshe Chagiz (Mishnas Chachomim No. 435) put it simply: “Make sure that your simchos do not become aveiros because of overspending.”

Rav Yaakov Emden (Siddur, Eshkol edition, 2:225) used similar language, concluding with the query, “I have no idea where this terrible custom came to our country.”

We, too, should ask ourselves not only the same question, but how we can go on the same after months of mageifah we have already endured.

I have not taken a poll, but I know that many shuls will only return to full capacity – when allowed by the law – when everyone has signed a no-cell phone commitment. Since it is just a week after Shavuos, I will share a light thought related by one of the prominent darshanim in Yerushalayim.

We all know that Hashem picked up Har Sinai and placed it over Klal Yisroel so that they would accept the Torah. Many Rishonim (see Tosafos, Shabbos 88a) ask why it was necessary to coerce us to accept the Torah when we had all declared naaseh venishma. Furthermore, why does the Medrash (Shemos Rabbah 29:9) tell us that the universe was silent? Why was that important?

He offered, tongue firmly implanted in cheek, the idea that Hashem silenced the world so that we could concentrate on the Torah, but the cell phones could still ring; Hashem therefore covered the area in such a way that even the disruptive little devices would be quiet.

Indeed, if we want to experience the daily Mattan Torah that every Jew can attain, if we want to speak to Hashem and have hope that He will listen, we must leave the world outside. That can only be done if we turn off our cell phones and, even better, leave them outside the shul and bais medrash. I don’t know if these were the aveiros or even lapses that brought the virus, but I do know that Chazal said to take serious events to heart. If we will do so, I believe – without being a novi – that we will all live happier, healthier lives, with the help of Hashem.