Six (So Far) Takeaways From the Corona Epidemic

I am undoubtedly not as wise as some of my columnist colleagues who have decided to avoid writing about corona until, G-d willing, it is all over. But as we edge closer to an unusual Pesach, I thought that we might all derive some chizuk from a few initial and definitely premature thoughts and ideas:

We miss our shuls and minyanim. Mi ke’amcha Yisroel. I have certainly not read everything going on in the secular world. But people are clearly having difficulty living without their sports events and plays, their regular entertainments and their favorite restaurants. We are fighting with our doctors and rabbis about not being able to daven with a minyan and attend a shiur. I finally and reluctantly signed onto the ban and have not heard the end of the complaints yet. “Why can’t we try this and why can’t we daven there? If these things are open, why can’t we stand 6 feet apart and say amein yehei shmei rabbah? I’m going to stay on my porch and so are the other nine guys. What kind of rov are you anyway?”

And those were the compliments!

I tell them that the gaaguim and kisufim, the yearnings and longing for devorim shebikedushah, are sometimes greater than the mitzvah itself (see, for instance, Rav Menashe Klein, Birchas Hamishnah, page 97; Rav Shimshon Pincus, Tiferes Shimshon, Haggadah, page 133).

But what a zechus it is for Klal Yisroel that this is our main concern and worry.

We do not yet know what Pesach will be like, but we do have an idea. Like most rabbonim, my phone hasn’t stopped with shailos, people who have never made Pesach, how to make a simple but kosher simcha, and how to make a bris or pidyon haben without a minyan. But, actually, only one person asked me, “What kulos (leniencies) do you have in your rabbinic bag for this situation?” And I think he was actually kidding. Klal Yisroel shifts into the beshaas hadechak mode in times of difficulty, but it doesn’t quit. Mitzrayim was difficult, but we will relive it and survive it, with the help of Hashem. I am not, chas veshalom, minimizing the tragedies and suffering that have already occurred, but Knesses Yisroel forms virtual Tehillim sessions, shiurim by “Zoom,” or other positive uses of technology and limud haTorah goes on.

Ain Od Milvado. Very little in recent years has so cemented and brought out our usually latent belief that the Creator is totally in charge of the world. It has become a cliché to say that man is as helpless today as in the primitive world if Hashem decides to take over in the most obvious of ways. My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner zt”l, used to say tongue in cheek to those who thought they had everything under control that “rubah derubah der Ribono Shel Olam fiert die velt – In general, G-d runs the world.” This was a response to those who arrogantly, ignorantly or complacently believed that their wealth or health, knowledge or power rendered them immune to life’s tests and challenges. Today, at this moment for sure, no one thinks that way anymore. A small vignette of what has been happening entered my life through one of the many difficult shailos that came to me. A man in my shul had yahrtzeit but accepted the p’sak that he should not attend a minyan. However, he asked if there is anything he could do for the neshomah of his dear departed father. The day before, I had just connected with someone from South Bend, Indiana, where the epidemic had not yet reached. He was kind enough to offer his services to recite Kaddish for people in such a situation. I put my member in touch with him and this is the rest of the story.

One day later, South Bend was already shut down and they couldn’t help. However, someone in that city did suggest calling Yeshivas Bais Moshe in Scranton, Pennsylvania, which was open and flourishing without the pandemic. He called the rosh yeshiva, Rav Chaim Bressler, who put him in touch with one of the veteran maggidei shiur, Rav Yaakov Fensterheim. Rav Fensterheim listened intently to the man’s dilemma and gladly agreed to recite Kaddish. “In fact,” Rav Fensterheim confided to the profoundly moved baal yahrtzeit, “I knew your father very well.” Yes, my friend, there is a Borei Olam. We need only do the right thing to perceive Him directly in our lives.

Without formal drashos, with minimal contact – certainly not live – with the gedolei hador, I believe that there is a silent wave of teshuvah in the air. I don’t know how long it will last, like all good things that need nurturing, but people have mentioned that they will appreciate their shuls more and will never miss a minyan or amein yehei shmei rabbah again. I am not one to draw links or connect the dots, not being a novi or the son of one. But I believe that there is an opportunity ahead to harvest the kabbalos people have been making and to create an unprecedented teshuvah movement. Many people have read and learned fascinating sources from Rishonim and Acharonim referencing the Moshiach connections of these events. Again, I have no idea if they are accurate. However, there is certainly an awakening of the tzipiya l’yeshuah, hope for salvation, which many gedolim, beginning with the Chofetz Chaim, have urged, written and spoken about.

Although there have perhaps been some pockets and minor incidents of chillul Hashem, in general the olam haTorah has demonstrated eloquently that our Torah has time-honored methods for dealing with modern issues. The responsa being widely cited, from Rav Akiva Eiger and many others, have shown irrevocably that we possess an ancient wisdom that can address new challenges and issues. On the hashkafah and mussar level, the extraordinary words of Rav Chaim Kanievsky (as quoted by the editor of this newspaper in his editorial last week) have reverberated throughout the world, as the posuk says, “Yotza kavom b’chol ha’aretz – Their precision goes forth throughout the earth and their words reach the end of the inhabited world” (Tehillim 19:5; see Avir Yaakov of Sadigura, page 9). They have been examined, studied and interpreted, like those of the Urim Vetumim centuries ago, and we hope that they, too, will bear fruit in the ensuing days and months.

There has been a resurgence of one of the most important – and occasionally neglected – units of Jewish life, the family. Rav Yitzchok Hutnerwrites (last maamar in Pachad Yitzchok, Purim, printed in Yiddish) that the institution of compulsory education, which the world lauds as a “progressive innovation,” was actually a poor but necessary substitute for home schooling. He stressed to a select group of menahalim that before there were tinokos shel bais rabbon – schoolchildren – there were tinokos shel bais av’han – children who received the Torah at home. That meant that they learned to make a brocha when they ate and other practical halachos at the moment they came up, leading to a vital and energetic panorama of the day-to-day teachings of the Torah. Rav Hutner explained that with the passage of time and the sufferings of the Jews in exile, schools became a necessity, but we should never forget that a child’s primary teachers are always avi mori and imi morasi. During these very long-seeming but actually very few days, the family unit has reasserted itself. Although the word is that many people did not exactly know how to cope without school or camp, the inner talent of parents resurfaced and returned to its former glory.

I know very well that the crisis is not yet over. I am personally davening for many people whose lives are still in dire danger. But there are many signs that we all have the opportunity to be better people and better Jews when all this is be’ezras Hashem over. Let’s daven in our homes and wherever we are allowed, to bring an end to this plague, even as we prepare to remember how the makkos on Mitzrayim were the matrix for our rise out of the 49 levels of defilement to become the nation that received the Torah just a few weeks later (Haggadas Rav Tzadok of Lublin).