Month: April 2020

Passover & Pandemic

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The nature of coronavirus contradicts everything we know and do as a community. It pushes us to be individuals. We’re restricted from davening with a minyan. We’re restricted from coming together in a yeshivah or beis medrash or to attend simchas. It’s a mind-bogglingly profound disruption of our lives and everything we know to be true about how the Torah teaches us to act and be.

Yet it’s all min hashamayim. It’s all from Hashem. As such, it’s a message – a message blasting loudly at a pitch we’ve never heard before. It’s a shofar gadol shouting and screaming at us. The question is: What is the message?

Prat and Klal

Rav Yisrael Reisman has a particularly wonderful shiur called, Haggadah Thoughts II. In it, he explains that everyone is a prat and a klal, an individual and a member of the community. Every individual and every community has a din, a judgment, and the two aren’t always in sync.

For instance, it’s possible that an individual is unworthy but he can be saved through the merit of the community. If, for example, it was decreed on Rosh Hashannah that something bad should happen to him, he can be saved if it was decreed on his community that it should be saved. He can live through the year on the coattails of the community’s merits.

Conversely, what happens if an individual had decreed upon him to live the year, but maybe it was the middle of the Holocaust when there was a tremendous din on the tzibbur and people had to die? Citing Rav Elchanon Wasserman, Hy”d, (Kovetz Shiurim) in the name of the G’ra and Rashba, Rav Reisman explains that even in such a case din haklali liolam goveress al din haprati — the judgment of the community overrules the judgment of the individual.

On the first Leil Pesach 3,032 years ago, there was a din on the community of Mitzrayim that every firstborn die. There may have been righteous Egyptians. The Gemara says there were Egyptians who had yiras shamayim, who took their animals in during barad and dever. But it didn’t matter that night. There was a decree on the community of Mitzrayim for the death of every firstborn.

Until that night, Klal Yisrael lived in Egypt and was part of that community. As such, they should have suffered the fate of Mitzrayim. But on the night of Pesach, a new nation was born. On that night, Klal Yisrael came into being. That’s the miracle of Pesach night. We became a people. And even though the community of Mitzrayim had decreed upon it death of all the firstborn, Klal Yisrael was no longer identified with the greater community. Even though there were Jews who may have been undeserving, they were now part of community that Hashem decreed would live.

The Corporation

Michael was a very idealistic young secular Jew — as well as extraordinarily sincere, gregarious and generous. He began his professional career in the business world and funneled all his good intentions into the marketing firm he worked for. It was business, but Michael approached it as an exercise in helping people, being impeccably moral and making the world a better place. In his mind, he was doing great things for humanity.

I asked him how long he thought the firm would last: a decade, two decades, longer? He hoped it would continue beyond his lifetime. As such, his work would be immortalized.

“What if,” I suggested, “you could do better, more moral and more world-changing work for the longest running corporation in history?”

Michael paused.

Then I told him that the Jewish people were that corporation! Anyone who was part of a 3,000-year-old people and its celebrated mission to be “a light unto the nations” was doing more good than working for even the largest and most philanthropic corporation; that being part of this “corporation” meant being part of the biggest thing possible.

Michael was impressed. He eventually took on a Torah lifestyle — and even became a rabbi and a force in the kiruv world! (See my article, Rabbi Michael Stern, zt”l: A Heart on Legs, in Yated August 2, 2019.)

Rabbi Michael Stern, zt”l, the “Rabbi Without Walls”

It’s a famous Mishnah: “All Yisrael [i.e. the corporate body called Israel] has a portion in the world to come…” (Sanhedrin 90b).Any individual worthy of the name “Yisrael” becomes part of an eternal corporate entity. Such an individual’s actions are magnified and immortalized.

The Jewish people became a “corporate entity” on Pesach night. On that night, when they put the blood of Egypt’s idol (the sheep) on their doorposts, they risked their lives and cast their lot with Hashem. Seeing that they had separated themselves from Egyptian culture, Hashem “passed over” their homes and spared them.

We live in the center of many circles. We identify with aspects of the general culture, some of which are foreign to Torah. But even those that aren’t foreign or are more or less benign, can distract us and distance us from who we are. Only when we throw off the subtle and not-so-subtle identifies foreign to Klal Yisrael do we deserve to be considered part of a greater whole — the greatest whole: a corporate entity that is forever.

Slamming the Door

Today, coronavirus is silently and unsuspectingly rampaging across the globe, rending almost helpless even the most powerful and advanced nations. In ancient Mitzrayim, it was the Malach MaMavess who wended its way through the land striking down all the firstborn. No home was spared. On every street, loud wails of weeping could be heard.

It was a terrible night, but the Bnei Yisrael were immune – as long as they stayed in their houses. As long as each family sat huddled together around the table locked inside, the Destroyer would not touch them.

That’s strange when you think about it. If a Jew ventured outside his home that night, why should his life be in danger? Didn’t the Malach HaMavess know the difference between a Jew and a Mitzri? What did it help to go into the house? As Rav Avigdor Miller put it, “A malach can pick a Jewish lock the same way he picks the Egyptian lock. So what did they accomplish by being inside the houses? It’s a big kasheh.”

And the answer, he explains, is that the locking of the doors of their homes was a symbolic statement meant to echo down the portals of time throughout all the generations: “We are hereby closing ourselves off from the umos ha’olom entirely…. Their customs are not our customs, and their entertainment is not our entertainment…. It’s the act of slamming the door shut on the attitudes and the influences of the outside world that saves the Am Yisrael and makes us the nation that belongs to Hashem forever.”

They weren’t slamming the doors shut to keep out the Malach HaMavees as much as to keep out the influence of Mitrayim! The fact that they didn’t leave their homes that night demonstrated that we “are a people who dwells alone, not counted among the nations” (Bamidbar 23:9).

Exercising Our “Klal Muscle”

Coronavirus challenges our way of life like nothing anyone can remember. The hygienic and basic halachic necessity for “social distancing” – for acting as individuals – contradicts our instincts and obligations as a community.

Even in a time of prat, of enforced individualization, however, we must find ways to act as a community, as a klal. This most certainly should take the form of heartfelt tefillos for others, feeling their suffering, joining in their pain, asking for their refuah (if not our own as well).

There are also other avenues to act as a klal such as giving tzedakah. Special mention should go out to the Rebbis and Morahs who get on conference calls with their talmidim and talmidos. And there are many other avenues as well. Even as we have to physically keep our distance, we have to act spiritually as a community. We’re far from helpless when it comes to exercising our “klal muscle.”

Yet, after all is said and done, coronavirus forces us to turn inwardly to ourselves as individuals. Before it was unleashed, sometimes we were so busy that we had no time to think. Now, if nothing else, we have more time than we’re comfortable with.

For all our gains in the generations following the Holocaust, perhaps we have not fulfilled our full inner potential as much as our outer appearance would indicate. Have we completed “mesechtas” such as yiras Hashem, ahavas Hashem, emunah, etc.

Sefer Chareidim, which sorts the mitzvos according to the parts of the body, lists 45 mitzvos asay (positive commandments) and 38 lo asay (prohibitions) of the heart. The Chovos Halevovos goes further and explains how every part of life – even those times not directly involved with a mitzvah act – can be transformed into avodas Hashem with a little thought.

Perhaps the mind is the final frontier for the generation that will greet Mashiach. The final frontier is the inner world. And we’ve made strides there too. But perhaps not enough yet for a teshuvah sheleimah.

Coronavirus is terrifying. It has us terrified about our lives, about very existence. In that sense, it’s similar to a momentous Pesach in ancient history centuries agon that likewise pushed our emunah to the limits.

The Assyrian Horde

In the sixth year of Chizkiah HaMelech, the Aseres HaShevatim, the Ten Tribes, were besieged by the mightiest army the world had ever seen, the army of Ashur (Assyria) led by the great warrior Sancheriv. After destroying the capital of Shomron (Samaria) he sent the Aseres HaShevatim into galus. His plan was to continue south, make a clean sweep into Yehudah and sack Yerushalayim.

Other wars sidetracked him a bit, but in the fourteenth year of Chizkiah, he came back with a vengeance and an even larger army. The Tanach says it was 185,000 strong, but the Gemara (Sanhedrin 95b) says it was much larger. The number 185,000 only included the highest ranking officers. How many soldiers did it have? The Gemara says, “The sum total of his camp was 260 myriad [10,000] thousands minus one.” That’s 2.6 billion!

Some explain that number as a guzma, an exaggeration (and we’ll attempt an interpretation ahead). But however you view it, it was a massive horde of enemy soldiers. So large that when they first crossed the Jordan River they had to swim across, but as horse and rider emerged drenched on the other side they reduced the amount of water in the river such that the next wave of invaders were able to cross standing. The final wave “kicked up dust with their feet and did not find water in the river to drink.”

Faltering Emunah

The loss of the Aseres HaShevatim eight years earlier was a tragedy that took a tremendous toll on the Jews in Yehudah. The better element of the people saw the Yad Hashem, but a weaker element were incensed that Hashem didn’t help the Ten Tribes. Malchus Yisrael had been much stronger militarily than Malchus Yehudah. If they fell, what chance did they have, many in Yehudah wondered.

As the Assyrian horde swept into the land, many Jews lost heart. Chizkiah tried to buy off Sancheriv and offered him all the treasure in his palace and in the Beis HaMikdash. It didn’t work. Employing psychological warfare, the Assyrians sent a Jewish traitor named Ravshakey to convince them to surrender Yerushalayim without a fight. He stood on the walls of the city and, in fluent Hebrew, called them fools for trusting in Chizkiah and Hashem.

“Don’t listen to Chizkiah, when he misleads you, saying, ‘God will save us.’ Had any of the gods of the nations saved their lands from the hand of the king of Assyria? …Have they saved Shomron from our hand? Who among all the gods of the countries have saved their country from my [Sancheriv’s] hand, that Hashem should save Yerushalayim from my hand?” (Melachim II 18:32-35; Yeshaya 36) The Jews were powerless to do anything as Ravshakey mocked Hashem and Chizkiah in their own language.

Pure Emunah

Then he added, “You’re leaning on the support of this broken reed” (Yeshaya 36:6). The “broken reed” was Mitzrayim. Chizkiah was depending upon Pharaoh, the King of Mitzrayim, to join his cause. “You’re making a mistake in trusting Pharaoh,” Ravshakey said to Chizkiah. He’s not going to come help you.

Rav Avigdor Miller used this episode to teach a fundamental lesson in bitachon. Of course, Hashem put those words in Ravshakey’s mouth, he points out. Chizkiah was a complete tzaddik. He certainly did not trust in Pharaoh. He prayed to Hashem with all his heart. And yet Hashem saw that this perfect tzaddik had a small amount of trust in Pharaoh that maybe he would help him.

What did Hashem do in order to make Chizkiah as perfect as possible? He sent the King of Ashur. As the King of Ashur was standing there with a huge army outside the gates of Yerushalayim and Pharaoh was sitting at home doing nothing, Chizkiah thought, “Where’s Pharaoh? He promised me he would be here when I needed him.”

And that cured Chizkiah. He became so cured, in fact, that now he trusted completely and only in Hashem.

At that precise Hashem sent Yeshaya to answer Ravshakey directly: “This is what Hashem spoke about him [Sancheriv]…. We scorn you… we laugh at you…” (ibid. 37:22). Chizkiah had to reach that point of absolutely pure bitachon for the Navi to speak in Hashem’s name and mock the mighty king besieging Yerushalayim.

The whole thing was a staged lesson. Hashem brought Sancheriv from far away with his entire army just to make this tzaddik purified of any hint of a spiritual flaw. Under Hashem’s magnifying glass for the greatest tzaddikim, He saw that Chizkiah possessed a certain amount of trust in a human being. For us, there wouldn’t have been anything wrong. However, for Chizkiah it was considered a flaw in his perfection. Hashem needed him to be absolutely pure in faith, so he orchestrated the whole situation where the King of Ashur came and besieged Yerushalayim.

It’s a remarkable thing. Hashem moved nations to teach the lesson: “Arur hagever asher yivtach bo’adam — Accursed is the man that trusts in human beings” (Yirmiyahu 17:5). Hashem orchestrated an entire world war of unprecedented proportions as a demonstration that they should learn to trust in Him.

Picture the situation. Klal Yisrael was staring annihilation in the face. An overwhelming implacable foe completely surrounded their last stronghold. There was a constant propaganda barrage against them in their native tongue. They had doubters from within. They went to sleep Pesach night with no realistic hope. It was the most desperate moment.

Death by Song

However, they woke up the next morning and the threat was gone. A malach smote the army of Assyria with a plague (Melachim II 19:35). Suddenly, in one night, everything changed.

The Gemara (Sanhedrin 95b) offers several explanations how the Assyrians died, including this one by Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha: “He [the malach killed them when he] made their ears hear the song from the mouth of the angels.” When they heard the greatness of the shirim of the malachim they perished.

Rav Miller explains: “This is included in the principle, ‘No one can see Me and live.’ No one can view the splendor of the Shechinah and remain alive; it’s too much for our nerves. Our blood vessels would burst at the excitement. They weren’t given that zechus, but they were given a little peak into what’s doing when the malachim say shirah to Hashem. Therefore, it was a case of perishing from seeing greatness beyond their ability to endure. Hashem, so to speak, opened their ears and allowed them to hear the music of the malachim, which to us would be a tremendous happiness, but to them was their downfall.”

2.6 Billion Minus 1

A malach smote the army of Assyria with a plague (Melachim II 19:35). Suddenly, in one night, everything changed.

We live in scary times. Terrifying, in fact. It has eerie similarities to the time 3,032 years ago when the Malach HaMavess was let loose on the streets in the form of an unstoppable plague. Just as then, no one is safe and there is no real defense.

The only defense then and now is to slam the doors of the world behind us and to fall into the loving embrace of Hashem. Without a pure emunah, all the quarantines and vaccines amount to nothing. With emunah everything is possible.

That brings us back to the Chazal that Sancheriv’s overall army was 2.6 billion strong “minus one.” The Gemara debates if it was “Minus 10,000 or minus 1,000 or minus 100 or minus 1?”The Gemara concludes “Teiku.” We have to wait until Eliyahu HaNavi comes and tells us.

But perhaps the deeper meaning is as follows: The “one” is Hashem. The number “260 myriads”(2.6 billion) is a reference to His name Yud-Key-Vav-Kay, which is 26 in gematria. The lesson is that it’s not a “numbers game.” A person can have the largest army in the world. If Hashem isn’t with him, he will lose. On the other hand, there can be 2.6 billion enemies aligned against us but if Hashem – the One — is on our side we have them outnumbered. They have no chance.

Until coronavirus we thought we knew we believed in Hashem. Then we discovered we believe in Hashem… plus some element of President Trump, plus the economy, plus our investments, plus modern medicine, plus our advanced technology, etc. On the dollar bill it says, “In G-d we trust” — but who do we really trust? Hashem or the dollar bill?

If we study our history we see how Hashem has been teaching our nation this principle again and again and again. He’s been systematically teaching us the great lesson that He and only He is in full charge of all the affairs of the world. Only He can be trusted.

Coronavirus is a shofar gadol. It’s rattled us down to the core. It’s prepared us for Pesach. Whether or not it’s preparing us for Mashiach depends on teshuvah — on a teshuvah sheleimah based on a pure emunah. A teshuvah sheleimah like nothing we’ve ever done in recent memory as a prat or a klal.