Monday, May 10, 2021

Starting Over The Right Way

For the first time, at least in my memory, the secular world has been treating the end of the old year and the beginning of the new a bit – lehavdil – like our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The New York Times ended the year with a gigantic headline stating “Let’s Start Over” (Sunday Review, December 27). Some sections asked pointedly, “Why wait for tomorrow?” Others declared, with a mixture of celebration and lament, “Things will not be the same, because we will not be the same.”

For a brief moment, we could feel the echoes of the Messianic era, when “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of Hashem as water covering the sea bed” (Yeshayah 11:9). Concepts of teshuvah (“start over”), zerizus (“why wait?”) and even a new vocabulary (“The New Words for our New Misery”) are in the air. When mentioning 2020, many utter words that resonate with our annual plea of “tichleh shanah…may this year with its curses end.” A noble, if fleeting, thought.

Yet, sadly, it is all an illusion. Listen to what the world is yearning for. Please read and weep for the pitiful longings of a world gone deaf and dumb: “What would you give to be standing right now, post-pandemic, shouting a drink order over your friend’s laughter? The bar you’re leaning against would be sticky with strangers’ spills. The air you’re breathing would be filtered through those strangers’ nasal tracts. And you wouldn’t think twice about it” (page 2 in giant letters).

Nebach. But wait. Are we any better? Of course, for us, the transition from December 31st to January 1st is not particularly significant. There is no Elul and no Selichos. We don’t have the benefit of Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and there is no Ne’ilah to culminate our spiritual exertions. Nevertheless, what have we learned from what will soon be a full year of messages from the Borei Olam? Have those who have returned to shul left their cell phones in the car or lobby? Are we thrilled and in awe to be facing our beloved aron kodesh once again? Are those who are still davening elsewhere having ga’aguim and kisufim for the irreplaceable kedusha of a bais haknesses? Or, Rachmana litzlan, has the convenience of rolling out of bed into the street, tent or garage erased all memories of what a true bais hamedrash has always meant to Klal Yisroel?

At this point, these are only questions. But I confess to being petrified of the answers. Perhaps we all know them already. To return to the miserable nostalgia of the newspaper, they conclude on this optimistic note: “The pandemic isn’t over; there are months of suffering to come. But – eventually – it may be a happy new year after all.” We, too, have a bit of time to change some attitudes and directions. If even small things are significant (Chulin 7b), we can only imagine Hashem’s purpose in bringing a mageifah that has clearly changed the world. And if we truly believe that hakol bishvil Yisroel (see Devorim 32:8; Medrash Shmuel to Pirkei Avos, page 225), then we should make the coming months of 5781 one long Elul of introspection and cheshbon hanefesh. As the world rethinks business, travel, education, family units, loneliness and the ever-present wish for “normalcy,” we need to return to our own roots, standards and mesorah. What, indeed, does Hashem want from us at this time?

I have spent a good deal of time on Zoom recently. Perhaps to assuage my own feelings of guilt, I wrote in these pages extensively about the importance of live interaction between teachers and students. I quoted from Yeshayah Hanovi (who seems to have much to say about our current plight) that there is nothing like seeing your teacher’s face in front of you. He exhorts us, “Your eyes will behold morecha, your teacher” (30:20). Rabbeinu Yonah (Iggeres Hateshuvah Hasholeim, page 70) extrapolates from here that “there is a specific mitzvah lehistakel, to behold a tzaddik and a chochom.” The conclusion of that article proposed that “whenever it becomes more possible, we should take our children to see gedolei Yisroel in the flesh, so to speak.” Perhaps this is a metaphor for what we need to do now and especially, G-d willing, when it is all over.

We must begin to look at our rabbeim, but, even more importantly, each other intently and carefully. Hashem has thrown us together as families and separated us from everyone else. We must use the opportunities at home to truly feel each other’s pain, needs and dreams. We have more time at home; there is less travel and fewer places to go. That must mean that we are needed at home by our loved ones. On the other hand, when we do venture forth, let us remember that each person we meet is a world unto himself or herself (Shemos Rabbah 52; Tzidkas Hatzaddik 149 from Koheles 12:5). Hashem surely wants us to reconnect with everyone who depends upon us and with a much wider swath of people.

We have been forced to reduce our simchos and limit our celebrations. Just as business and travel will never be the same again, we must learn some histapkus (frugality and limitation). Do we really need so many flowers at our weddings? Does every chasunah have to be a concert in disguise? It was the Creator – not politicians – Who decreed that we have fewer people at our simchos. Why should we return to reckless and often unnecessary spending when we did just fine for a year? All of our newly-minted young couples are boruch Hashem doing just fine. Let’s take our cue and hint from our Father in heaven, Who clearly wants us to learn some tznius in our spending, not just in our clothing.

When we were davening by ourselves, we often noticed the words more clearly than ever. People who never thought of a chiddush found genuine new meaning in ancient sentences. It would be a shame to waste this discovery of our wonderful friend, the siddur shel tefillah. There are translations for every level and commentaries for all ages and levels of understanding. Let’s not lose a friend because we can return to jaded praying. The Kuzari writes that for the truly pious person (the chossid) each daily opportunity to daven is awaited with anticipation as the most important time of the day. He reminds us that just as we eat breakfast but are hungry again at lunch, so does our soul yearn for another encounter with Hashem after Shacharis wears off. After Mincha, we need Maariv to reconnect once again, and so the daily pattern constantly rejuvenates our relationship with our loving Father in heaven.

Finally, although there are myriad more lessons to be absorbed from the days of Covid, let us remember the many who perished and were buried almost alone. The one Being we always have with us – if we allow Him into our lives – is our Heavenly Father. If, as Rav Avigdor Miller taught us, we speak to Him constantly, we will never feel alone.

Dovid Hamelech says in L’Dovid, “My father and mother have abandoned me, but Hashem will take me in.” Rav Shlomo Wolbe (Alei Shur 1:304) points out that almost all Jews become somewhat more religious when they have unfortunately lost a parent. They recite Kaddish, keep a yahrtzeit or do some other religious act. Why is this? Because there are three partners in a human being, Hashem and his father and mother. When his parents pass away, he can no longer turn to them, so he approaches the hitherto unseen partner whom he never knew. Now he begins a new period in his life.

We, too, must take advantage of this opportunity Hashem has granted us to get to know Him better. By reacquainting ourselves with the siddur, by rededicating ourselves to shul and tefillah b’tzibbur, we discover that we do have a loving Father Who is capable, as the Shaar Habitachon teaches, of providing us with all our needs. However, we must make that crucial first step. After that, He will carry us, as He did when we were children, in His waiting arms. It is not normalcy to which we need to return, but to the One Who created us. If we do it all correctly, this could be the war of Gog UMagog which we have dreaded for millennia. However, victory is both near and available if we just take that first giant step. Yes, indeed. Let’s start over, not with the old discarded “normal,” but with our own beloved beginning, Bereishis Bara Elokim.

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