Lessons of the Lockdown

The current, seemingly unending coronavirus lockdown continues to bring out the best and the worst in people. Intense manifestations of selflessness and selfishness, of middos tovos and middos ra’os, of ahavah and sinah, boldly rise to the surface, as people are tested and their strengths and weaknesses conspicuously come forth. 

As the lockdown wears harder on us, some important and often subtle life lessons emerge. Let’s take a look:

The Words of the Governors

People in lockdown states are glued to the news, waiting with bated breath for hints about their states reopening. “Will the governor say anything about it today? Why is he taking so long? Which political agenda is motivating his decision? He needs to end this lockdown ASAP.”  

Exactly one month ago, the governor of one major Northeast state castigated the mayor of the state’s largest city for announcing that schools were being closed for the remainder of the year, based on this mayor’s discussion with Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. The governor declared that school closure was a regional issue, not a local one within the jurisdiction of any mayor, and also objected to this mayor deciding something that involved an unknown situation well over a month away, explaining, “I don’t think anybody can make an informed decision right now. Every informed projection — by experts, by the way — has not turned out correct.” Well, that same week, the governor suddenly extended his state lockdown order to cover the next month and a half. So much for his harsh dismissal of long-term decisions on the matter…

And never mind that this same governor, while talking tough and with great bravado about lockdown rules, and sternly admonishing people to abide by them, appears each morning sporting an exceptionally sharp hairdo, a real maaseh uman, which required the likes of Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci to sculpt, and never mind that the governor and his entourage travel to a different, distant part of the state every single day for the governor’s daily press briefings. While mandating the closure of barbershops and strict travel restrictions, the governor’s own conduct is, well, perhaps a bit different. (And never mind the governor’s assurances that he is apolitical, but seconds later launches into lengthy attacks on leaders of the opposing political party, time and time again during his Covid-19 updates…) 

Getting back to the lockdown dates, this governor has changed his state’s reopening requirements more times that Lovon changed the wages of Yaakov Avinu, from pledging to a multi-state unified reopening, to a reopening based solely on meeting the three-step Center of Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, and now to a reopening based on satisfying seven different conditions, among numerous other fleeting reopening standards that were announced and then ignored throughout the past month.  

The state to the adjacent southwest presents a similar scenario. While its governor clearly does not share the professional grooming of his colleague to the northeast, this governor has been even hazier about his state’s reopening, pledging last month that it would be “weeks, not months,” but then suddenly extending the lockdown for yet another month and unveiling a new and elaborate 6-principle reopening regimen. Two weeks ago, this governor announced that he was going to reveal his state’s reopening schedule in a few days, and two days later, his revelation was that there was no schedule. 

Mind you that we all want to be safe and healthy, be’ezras Hashem, and that we are not challenging the validity of the precautions that have been established. Decisions need to be based on objective medical advice, and we must defer to the experts and carefully follow the guidelines. We have all tragically lost friends and perhaps also family members to Covid-19, and we dare not seek “kulos” in the face of sakanah and take things lightly. The question is not whether the governors are in the right, but rather how we, as Torah Jews, should view and digest the words of politicians on the matter.

Dovid Hamelech tells us, “Ashrei hagever asher som Hashem mivtacho v’lo fonoh el rehovim v’sotei chozov – Happy is the man who places his trust in Hashem and does not turn aside to the haughty and those who stray to falsehood” (Tehillim 40:5). This is our only motto in dealing with political leadership. Our yeshuah from the current situation does not depend on the daily whims and fluctuations in the minds of governors or on any other person. Only when Hashem decrees that the lockdown must end will it occur. The political puppets and their statements, regardless of good or bad intentions, hypocrisy or sincerity, are perhaps a way for Hashem to test our reliance on Him, our bitachon. Maybe by showing us quite glaringly how these human leaders change their minds so frequently on such important issues and contradict themselves repeatedly to the point of the farcical, Hashem is making it clear that it is a charade in order that we realize that Someone Else, Who is infinitely higher, is of course in charge.  

So rather than await news from the governors and becoming frustrated with their decisions, we need to accept the gezeirah of lockdowns and daven for yeshuah and hatzolah, knowing Who is really in control.

Being Unproductive

It is easy during this lockdown period to slack off – learn less, wake up late, daven at odd hours, eat unhealthfully and gain weight, and so forth. We tell ourselves, “I’ll get back to regular sedorim, a normal schedule, and a good diet when this all ends.” We feel stuck, as if we are unable to accomplish much or maximize our potential under the circumstances.

Although we cannot impose strict standards on others during this period, and especially not on children, as Rav Gershon Edelstein and other rabbonim and mechanchim have instructed, our motivation to perform maximally should not decrease. If we wait for every perfect situation, we will always have an excuse and never operate at our fullest. “V’al tomar, ‘Lekeshe’efneh eshneh, shema lo siponeh – And do not say, ‘When I have time, I will learn,’ for perhaps you will not have the time” (Avos 2:4). Hillel instructs us that there is never an ideal moment until which we can delay learning (at our best); now is always the time to learn to our potential. 

Phrased differently, we are told that now is always the ideal time, as Torah is meant to be learned under all conditions and in every situation. Did the yeshiva bochurim in Shanghai, in the midst of World War II, decide not to learn as intensely then and instead wait for a better time to seriously delve into their learning? Aderaba, it is known that these bochurim, and their rabbeim, shteiged immensely in Shanghai, just as it is known that the Brisker Rov zt”l conceived and penned some of his most famous shtiklach Torah on the Rambam while trapped in the German bombardment of Warsaw and, prior to that, while on the run, as he stayed with his brother, Rav Moshe zt”l, in Haslavitch, White Russia (where Rav Moshe was the rov) when the residents of Brisk were forced to flee their town in the face of a rumored Russian onslaught. We are not the Brisker Rov, but the lesson is that each of us must do his best to shteig and to be an optimal oveid Hashem, despite the circumstances. If we wait for the ideal situation, we will end up squandering an immense amount of precious time, never to regain what was lost.

Keeping our Standards  

Someone recently sent me what was hailed as a great article, which I assumed I would disseminate after reading it. The article contained a point that due to the lockdown and our realization of what is important and what is trivial, a certain hashkafic matter was now inconsequential, as there are more fundamental things to worry about. The article was not speaking about some petty issue, but about an area that can impact one’s commitment to mesorah. (Needless to say, I immediately deleted the article and sent it to my email trash box.)

It is imperative that as much as our routines and more have been extremely disrupted by Covid-19, we not cede a mashehu of our values, our hashkafos. While many things need to be put on hold, as we prioritize and are forced to choose the ikkar over the tofel in certain areas, we dare not fall for the “it doesn’t really matter” argument. In other words, we must carefully know what is ikkar and what is tofel, as that which the world at large might consider tofel could indeed be ikkar, and the reverse.

Returning to the Brisker Rov, there was an incident that occurred very close to Yom Kippur, when someone who was walking with the Rov in Yerushalayim started to tell him about a certain individual espousing dangerous hashkafos. The person who was relating this to the Brisker Rov suddenly stopped himself in the middle and apologized to the Rov for telling him negative information about another person right before Yom Kippur. The Rov corrected the person and told him that it was davka important to relate the information now, at the approach of Yom Kippur, and it was a mitzvah (so as to protect others from the kefirah). The Brisker Rov’s priorities were finely calibrated even at the most difficult of times.

Remote Learning

Coronavirus has forced everyone to learn remotely – remote shiurim, chavrusos, and, lehavdil, secular studies. One newspaper even reported: “Remote learning could replace the practice of a teacher standing in front of a classroom instructing students in the post-coronavirus area.” This paper proceeded to quote the governor of its state, who opined, “And you do that all (remote learning). Across the city, all across the state, all these buildings, all these physical classrooms, why? With all the technology you have?” In other words, remote learning should permanently replace in-person learning to a large extent.

Now, it is obvious that chemistry lab classes do not work well when done at home in front of a screen, unless one does not mind risking the unregulated handling and mixing of potentially dangerous chemicals in his living room. But we Yidden know that with anything, especially limud haTorah, remote learning is a very deficient method that might be great when there is no choice, like now, but can never replace a live, in-person rebbi, or a chavrusah sitting across the table in the bais medrash. “Ponim b’fonim” (Devorim 5:4) is not a mere catchphrase. It is the basis of Hashem’s direct communication with us at Matan Torah, and it defines the centrality of a live, close-up rebbi for limud haTorah (and more). “Vehayu einecha ro’os es morecha” (Yeshayahu 30:20)

I have boruch Hashem maintained my learning schedule, with my same chavrusa and sedorim, and despite the crystal clear phone connection and access to an empty bais medrash, with all the seforim, quiet and space one could ever want, it is nothing like the “real” thing. The personal kesher, the engrossing sensation of live milchamtah shel Torah, and the ability to interject and animatedly argue things out, showing the other person one’s diyukim while pointing to the words in a Rishon inside, are all absent. The informational side of Torah is there, but the full hergesh and dynamics are missing. This applies whether one learns calmly or excitedly, whether one paces robustly, shouts with his chavrusa and bangs the shtender, as well as to those whose sedorim are quiet, sedate and cerebral.

I recall years ago how a group of Catholic priests sought to visit a bais medrash in the New York area. Why? Because the priests were fascinated by the chavrusa system and wanted to see how it works. They did not mean the idea of people studying together, as many do in libraries and online. Rather, they meant the masa umatan of a chavrusashaft, which was foreign to these men but captivated their attention, as the energetic and stimulating interactivity manifested a learning methodology that is so challenging and thought-provoking, well surpassing the study techniques known to the rest of the world. Chas veshalom to surrender such a precious in-person system, which is part of our heilige mesorah of limud haTorah, in favor of remote learning or other technologies. These technologies have their rightful place and have been incredibly helpful during the current pandemic, but they are not replacements for the real thing.

Humility

Right after Purim, the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County (RCBC) held a lengthy meeting, with major epidemiologists in attendance, in order to consider and formulate a communal response to the approaching coronavirus pandemic. The RCBC voted to adopt acute, draconian measures, including the closing of shuls and schools. Some people (yours truly included) felt that these measures were too extreme – until all yeshivos and shuls around the world shortly thereafter followed suit, and we witnessed the many tragic casualties of Covid-19 commence a few weeks later.

While one can debate the exact extent of social distancing needed and how long to keep all safeguards in place (deferring to disinterested, apolitical medical experts for the answers), the fact is that those who denied the danger were wrong and were thereby humbled. Thinking that one knows better than everyone else, when those others possess specialized information that he lacks, is not the way to go (with any issue, not only here), and the current matzav certainly drilled this lesson in quite effectively.

Let us please daven to the Ribbono Shel Olam for yeshuah, hatzolah and nechomah. We want to see everyone healthy, we long to return to our shuttered yeshivos and shuls, and we know that only He is in control of all.