The Great Corona Opportunity

Do you remember that time when, sitting in class, a bee found its way into the classroom? Pandemonium broke out as kids jumped on their desks to escape the buzzing insect with its stinger poised.

Think now for a second about how the rebbi or teacher must have felt at that point. How do you teach a class when there is a bee flying around?

Well, I have a friend, a rebbi, who told me what he did, and I think that, perhaps, the way he dealt with that bee in a classroom full of 7th grade boys offers some lessons on how, as Torah observant Jews, we can approach the unique nisayon of corona as an opportunity.

A Possible Final Zechus to Counter Eisav’s Zechus

First, let me digress to discuss a phone call I received last week from Rav Naftoli Cukier, a legend of Russian kiruv, who for decades has been leading Vaad L’Hatzolas Nidchei Yisroel kiruv seminars in Russia.

Rabbi Cukier, who is in the age bracket that doctors caution must be extra careful not to be exposed to the virus, has been holed up in his home since right after Purim. He commented how both he and many of his similarly-aged friends have marveled at the devotion displayed by their children during this crisis. Because going shopping and otherwise interacting with society has been deemed so dangerous for those over sixty, their married children, who themselves are very busy trying to entertain their own young children who are cooped up at home and otherwise running their lives, have stepped up to the plate with tremendous care and responsibility.

“My children and the children of many friends who I talk to are constantly calling, asking if they can shop for us or bring things over. They constantly come, dropping things off at the house. The beautiful, exemplary way that they have been fulfilling the mitzvah d’Oraysa of kibbud av v’eim is heartwarming,” he exclaimed.

“One of the seforim (I forget which one he referenced),” Rabbi Cukier continued, “states that as we know, our golus is the golus of Eisav. Eisav had one zechus that enables him to hang on, the zechus of kibbud av, that he honored his father in an exemplary way. It is that zechus that stands him in good stead until today. How can we neutralize that zechus and finally put an end to the golus of Edom/Eisav? By showing that we have shteiged above him, that we have surpassed him in this mitzvah. The coronavirus. has provided children with an amazing opportunity to fulfill this mitzvah in the most magnificent ways. With their parents confined to their homes, they have been going above and beyond, helping their parents, serving their parents, caring for their parents… Perhaps this is that final zechus that we need to end the exile of Eisav.”

Indeed, a beautiful thought. However, the word that struck me as most meaningful was “opportunity.”

Transforming a Nisayon into an Opportunity

Many of us are viewing Covid-19 as a tremendous nisayon, which it is. Simultaneously, it is a tremendous opportunity, and if we are clever, we will utilize it, chapping arein to the utmost.

As a way of understanding the unique “corona opportunity” that we have, let me share with you what my friend, a 7th grade rebbi, did when an unwelcome bee invaded his classroom. He told them the story of Reb Zelig.

Reb Zelig was an oveid Hashem who grew up in the great Jewish centers of pre-war Poland. After the war, he obtained a coveted certificate to enter British Mandatory Eretz Yisroel together with a group of friends who, despite all the hardships they had endured through the war, formed a chevrah to learn and serve Hashem together.

On the boat ride from Europe to Eretz Yisroel, the boat made a one-day stop in Constantinople prior to commencing the final leg of the journey across the Mediterranean Sea. Reb Zelig’s friends decided to leave the boat for a short tour of Constantinople, one of the most beautiful cosmopolitan cities of that time.

Reb Zelig chose not to go. His well-meaning friends tried convincing him, urging him, “Come Zelig’l, this is a one-time opportunity. We are only in Constantinople for one day and we will probably never return to this city. When will you ever have the opportunity to see the beauty of Constantinople again?”

Reb Zelig, in his inimitable way, responded with a powerful, unexpected reply. He said, “When will I ever again have the opportunity to learn a few blatt Gemara when I could have been seeing beautiful Constantinople?”

By declining to join his friends, Reb Zelig did not view himself as deprived. He did not feel that although he very much wanted to see the beauty of the city, his conscience would not permit him. That was not Reb Zelig. His outlook was that this was a windfall, a fantastic opportunity. After all, when would he again be afforded the chance to forego touring a city as special as Constantinople and instead learn a blatt Gemara? When would he again be able to show Hashem how dear His Torah is and thus become closer to Him?

Undoubtedly, the great simcha and spiritual satisfaction derived from that blatt Gemara made the fleeting pleasure of seeing Constantinople pale in comparison.

Similarly, my friend told his class, “Tell me, when are you going to have the opportunity to learn Gemara when there is a bee in the classroom that is doing everything possible to make you stop learning? If you can simply ignore it and learn anyway, you will be zoche to the greatest opportunity.”

Seeking Out the Opportunities

So, my dear friends, while the coronavirus and all its inherent difficulties and inconveniences are a tremendous nisayon on the one hand, they are also a tremendous opportunity on the other. An opportunity for everyone in the family, adults and children, men and women, boys and girls. We spoke about the opportunity for kibbud av v’eim, citing what married children are doing for their parents, but, of course, this mitzvah applies equally and perhaps even more to those children who are at home.

There are so many other examples. For those still davening b’yechidus, it is difficult to daven without a minyan, yet it offers an opportunity to go at your own pace, to contemplate the words and to talk to Hashem without inhibition. So much of what we do in our world is partially because other people are looking. Here, it is just you and Hashem, with no one looking. It is such a unique opportunity to make a connection.

I saw that one of the gedolei Yisroel cited a powerful Medrash in Shir Hashirim that says that the reward of someone who learns Torah when he is not in his comfort zone and regular place of learning is exponentially greater than someone who learns in his regular place without difficulty. The Medrash says that the shevet of Naftali received 1,000 portions of reward in comparison with shevet Yissochor, who received 200 portions, because Naftali learned Torah when it was painful and when they were not in their regular place of learning (see Medrash Shir Hashirim, 8-12).

It is extremely difficult for bnei yeshiva and kollel yungeleit to learn in the same way that they do in their respective yeshivos and kollelim, yet it is an unparalleled, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because the harder it is, the more nachas you give Hashem.

It is difficult for middle school and high school girls to help take care of their siblings and still keep up with the never-ending pile of schoolwork, all while being cooped up in the house without much of a social life, but it is an opportunity – an opportunity to help with a smile, to get to know your family, to attach yourself to Hashem.

Diplomat Abba Eban once said that the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Let us not emulate the Palestinians. Hashem has given us a nisayon, but He has also given us an unparalleled opportunity. Let’s not squander it.