Monday, May 10, 2021

Graduating from the Covid-19 Yeshiva

As with all rabbonim, I have the zechus of giving many drashos and shiurim. In honor of Daf Yomi’s completion of the fourth perek of Pesachim, which is largely about minhagim – Jewish customs – I gave a shiur to our kollel and baalei batim on the distinctions between minhag and halacha. When is something codified formally as a rule and when does it remain only a custom? We also discussed how we can ascertain if something is truly a minhag Yisroel, which is considered on an almost equal plane to Torah (see Tosafos, Menachos 20b) and when it is only a man-made tradition without the force of mesorah. With some trepidation, I even mentioned a bit of folk wisdom which points out that the Hebrew words minhag and gehennom, meaning purgatory, have the same letters. The speakers and writers who note this connection make the point that wrongfully enacted customs can be as destructive to Klal Yisroel as actual sins for which one is severely punished.

Although I didn’t mention this during a halacha shiur, all of this went through my mind concerning the coming end of a complete year of Covid-19. We are boruch Hashem now able to hope for herd immunity with the new vaccinations being offered, albeit a bit slower than anticipated. But we must also look realistically at the collateral damage from many of the new minhagim that have arisen during this past year and seriously evaluate which, if any, will just disappear, which have burnt us like gehennom, and which, if any, have been heaven-sent for our long-range benefit. This little essay is just an initial attempt to assess where damage control is needed and where we have learned lessons for a lifetime and perhaps even generations. Let us explore several areas of both concern and positive lessons that we should learn from the mageifah we are still fighting.

First of all, even the secular world has noticed that our children and often entire families have spent more time than ever on various devices and other technology. To be sure, some of this has been necessary and has often saved us from total time-wasting and idleness. However, the inability to join with family and friends physically for months has created a vacuum that has been filled by tiny cameras, fleeting images, and sometimes muffled sounds. When, G-d willing, these crutches are no-longer needed, our atrophied social muscles will have to be exercised carefully so that we regain skills and natural inclinations once again. Even the great Tannaim, Rav Shimon Bar Yochai and his son, Rav Eliezer, had to become re-acclimated so that they would not destroy the world after their long period of enforced seclusion (Shabbos 33b).

Secondly, as we have noted in these pages before, many of us have almost completely lost our close connections to our shuls and botei medrash. At first davening without a minyan for months and most recently in outdoor minyanim, we have nearly forgotten our once automatic attachments to the buildings and people constituting our intermediary to Hashem and kedusha itself. Many rabbonim had actually hoped that the nostalgia for our shuls would send all the fugitives back in droves, while making us all so grateful to be there that not a word of forbidden talking would be heard. However, the yeitzer hara does not work that way. Chazal (Yerushalmi, end of Brachos) teach us that if we abandon a Torah connection for a day, it avoids our grasp for two. This means that it is often extremely difficult to regain madreigos and spiritual norms. I strongly suggest that organizations such as Torah Umesorah and other chinuch experts think about restorative methodologies for the months ahead, so that, G-d willing, the school year of 5782 will be able to begin with all the spiritual power it will need and deserve. This will undoubtedly need healthy doses of both sur meira – ridding ourselves of the negatives, and aseh tov – new excitement about learning under what was once normal circumstances (see Tehillim 34:15). The Sefas Emes (Parshas Behaaloscha 5660) even defines the sur meira phase of our lives as a war, fighting to abandon bad practices so that the era of aseh tov can successfully begin.

Thirdly, in addition to general isolation, the connection of young people to their grandparents and elders in general has been severely severed. Although the family unit of parents and children has mostly held up during Covid-19, both children and grandparents have suffered from the disconnection. To be sure, this has been a universally sad, even tragic phenomenon. However, for us, the nation of mesorah, it created a rift of almost irreparable proportions. Growing up as a child of Holocaust survivors, my friends and I were often grandparent-less. We were so excited and actually curious when one of our American-born classmates introduced us to his bubby and zaidy. I remember virtually adopting several of them as my own, hungry for the special kind of attention they provided. They, in turn, knew instinctively what we needed and obligingly showered us with their surrogate love. Many young people lost one or more grandparents from Covid and at the very least didn’t see much of them for a year.

I would suggest that this deprivation for us in particular is the loss of the opportunity to “Ask your father and he will relate it to you, your elders and they will tell you” (Devorim 32:7). Although Rashi interprets those being questioned as the prophets and sages, a letter from Rav Yechezkel Levenstein to his grandchildren (Ohr Yechezkel, “Letters,” 1:127, page 129) makes it clear that he takes his grand-parenting obligations quite literally. There is actually no substitute for a real live and loving grandparent representing previous generations. It is they who connect us to our glorious past and cement the generations together.

My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, often pointed out that in the animal world, there is ample proof of good parenting. However, there is rarely a relationship with another generation going back. We, who believe that each generation back is one closer to Har Sinai, consider any interruption in this continuity as a serious disruption of the mesorah. Indeed, the posuk requires this level of Torah transmission beginning at Sinai itself: “Make them known to your children and your children’s children” (Devorim 49), which the Gemara (Brachos 21b, Kiddushin 30a; see also Pachad Yitzchok, Shavuos, maamar 8) understands as grandparents teaching Torah to their grandchildren. The Gemara declares this to be the guarantee that the Torah will remain intact through the end of time. We must be careful to renew these wonderful relationships as soon as possible. Zoom is nice, but not enough.

To end on a positive note, those many families who put in the effort became much closer over the past year. The ability to watch children more closely, the opportunity for much mutual chesed, the appreciation for those who are well when so many – sadly and tragically – were lost has created permanent bonds of love and respect. In the wisdom of the secular world, it is said that while absence makes the heart grow fonder, familiarity breeds contempt. However, for those raised and immersed in mussar and Torah values, the closer we approach greatness, selflessness and good character, the better it is for all. Despite many pressures and nisyonos, many people have grown from the adversity of Covid. We daven that we should not be tested, but, as the Mesilas Yeshorim teaches us in the very beginning of this classic work, we are born to be tested. It has been suggested that the universal phenomenon of testing young people is rooted in this concept. School is just a training ground for life itself. Surely, Covid-19 has been replete with daily nisyonos. Most have passed some, failed others, and hopefully learned enough to improve with each new exam.

As we hopefully will be graduating from this particular school of hard knocks, let us redouble our efforts to learn what we can in these next few months, so that we can truly say that we have learned our lessons and can return to our ancient time-honored minhagim once again.

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