Torah Contact Tracing: A Goal For Our Time

Now that the Covid-19 vaccines are almost here, there has been much discussion about scientific discoveries. Those who are honest give President Trump credit for incredibly speeding up the process. What once would have taken years – if ever – has been developed in less than a year. But for most of us at the moment, there are many discoveries that we have made about ourselves during this difficult period which may be even more significant. Some of these revelations have been harder to swallow than any bitter medication. Tensions and tempers have flared because of the long hours, days, weeks and months together with nowhere to go to relieve the isolation. I know several mental health professionals who are suffering from even worse Covid fatigue than the rest of the community because of their heavy load of cases. On the others hand, some people have uncovered strengths, talents and an innovative side they never explored before.

 One of the interesting societal findings has been the surprisingly large number of people with whom we interact and share many things, for better or worse. One of the new terms we have all learned is “contact tracing.” This “laborious delicate process,” in the words of a recent article (New York Times Sunday Review, November 22, 2020), demonstrated even to the professionals themselves that we all touch and are touched by more people than we thought. Entitled “The Contacts of My Contacts,” the author confesses that “what I found floored me. I thought my bubble was pretty small, but it turned out to be far larger than I’d guessed.” Even a well-protected relatively small family comes into regular contact with at least 24 people. People like us who go to school and shul, who shop and attend even the most minimal of simchos, have a much wider sphere of both influence and potential danger.

 This is not a medical or political column. My focus is neither of the above, but upon the lesson for all of us, which is enormous.

 First of all, Chazal (Arachin 15b) famously tell us that “chavrach chavra is lei vechavra dechavrach chavra is lei” – your friend has a friend and your friend’s friend has a friend.” This epigram has many halachic ramifications, but it must be noted that these consequences can be both good and bad. As Rav Itzele Volozhiner related from his father, Rav Chaim Volozhiner, we were not created to be alone, but for our relationships with others. We are both influenced by our environment and can have an effect on others.  The Chofetz Chaim (Hilchos Lashon Hara, klal 2, with Nesivos Chaim, page 58) discusses the rule that one may sometimes repeat something negative that a person related about himself. This is because it is assumed that something revealed to two people will inevitably become public knowledge. However, even in that case, this leniency carries extremely strong limitations. Knowing that a revelation will no longer remain a secret is not a blanket dispensation to say what we wish, since we are still prohibited from exacerbating the problem. When we are in crowds or a more intimate setting, we must be careful with confidences and respect the rights of the individual.

 Many poskim warn severely about choosing our neighbors carefully, because living close by others always cross-pollinates middos, attitudes, language and many other traits.

 For instance, the Chasam Sofer (al haTorah, page 146) writes strongly that “those who are in charge of Jewish children must guard them against bad friends and neighbors, particularly those who are hypocrites and frauds, lest they become a baleful influence upon the young.”

 On the other hand, we have been privileged to witness in our day how many of our wonderful families and even young children have been mekarev others just through their presence and the obvious decency they radiate compared to the decadent world around us. Just as the “experts” were shocked to find out how close we all come to others physically, we must realize that the material world is just a metaphor for the real world of the spirit, which is the most important of all. The Sefas Emes (Likkutim, page 148) offers us an amazing explanation for our ability to influence others: “Since each of us is bateil – completely subjugated – to the essence of Hashem, we are actually one with each other, and even if one person is greater and the other lesser, we are actually all one with each other.”

 Rav Aharon Kotler (Mishnas Rebbi Aharon, Nevi’im, page 103) reminds us that two of the 48 methods of acquiring the Torah – dikduk chaveirim and pilpul chaveirim – are essentially formats for achieving closeness with one’s friends. By sharing, learning and growing together, everyone benefits. His son, Rav Shneur Kotler (Noam Siach, Elul, page 37) added that “dibbuk chaveirim is the most important of the methods of acquiring the Torah.”

 Even in his older age, Rav Yechezkel Levenstein wrote in a letter how his “friends” have helped him “to grow in Torah and mussar” (Ohr Yechezkel 1:250, letter No. 281).

 The Vilna Gaon (Mishlei 18:24) explains this phenomenon by extolling the power of friendship: “a good friend is better than a brother, for the love of brothers stems from their common beginnings, but when they are separated, this closeness may be weakened. But a friend, even from afar, remains attached to his soul forever.” Interestingly, the Alter of Kelm (Bais Kelm 3:105) understood Moshe Rabbeinu’s criticism of the Bnei Gad and Bnei Reuvein as stemming from their wish to distance themselves from the opportunities for gaining from their friends who would be on the other side of the Jordan River. For this alone, they deserved to be chastised strongly (heard also from Rav Avigdor Miller). While we may often be in enforced isolation and quarantine these days, we should still be seeking those wonderful connections which enhance us all and continue to avoid the ones that can be injurious.

 However, Rav Boruch Mordechai Ezrachi (Birkas Mordechai, Chumash, Parshas Kedoshim, page 217) warns that even good friends must maintain not only friendship, but mutual respect. Rebbi Akiva’s talmidim are referred to as “pairs” (Yevamos 62b), because that was their essence. They were not just casual chavrusos, but true soul-brothers. Yet, they failed tragically in their lack of sufficient reverence for each other. Torah friendship means mutual respect, gaining and giving to each other, a constant oscillation of giving and yielding, sharing and taking. For this, amongst other reasons, when dibbuk chaveirim is missing for whatever reason, it must be supplemented in Torah-approved ways and methods.

 In a fascinating and brilliant insight, Rav Michel Yehudah Lefkowitz consoles a young bochur upon his friend ending their relationship. “Do not attribute this break-up to hatred, G-d forbid,” the rosh yeshiva writes. “Sometimes, young people become too dependent upon each other and must part company. Do not take this personally. Imagine that he ended the friendship lesheim Shomayim and do not trouble yourself over it any more” (Derech Hachaim, page 321).

 Perhaps – who knows? – some of the relationships we were deeply attached to may have needed to be tempered or even ended. In any case, even enforced change can be turned into something for the best.

 General society and the Torah world included have experienced profound trauma during this past year. We must do our best to make sure that we do not emerge from this into a newer form of post-traumatic syndrome. Deprivation is never good and deprivation of friends is recognized by the Torah as devastating. Now is the time to hone and strengthen good friendships, even when we cannot connect in all of the old ways. Hashem has done this for a reason that we do not yet understand. However, the most important first step is to recognize what we are missing. The professionals have shown us that we have many more relationships and connections than we realize. The best of dibbuk chaveirim creates opportunities for chesed and spiritual growth, for ahavas Yisroel and selflessness. These middos and goals can be supplemented in creative ways. Some of it is already being done and we will need much more. Let us once again turn the adversity into opportunity and pass this latest test with a smile and enhance the appropriate friendships for which our souls yearn so deeply.