I have been asked by alumni to provide my thoughts on the current situation, both from a practical as well as “spiritual” perspective.
From a practical perspective, the response is simple. Follow all guidelines and restrictions of the health services. This is necessary both to protect yourself and even more importantly to ensure that you aren’t responsible for others getting sick – others who may be in a much higher risk category than you. The need for the restrictions being required are real.
As far as providing spiritual perspectives, everyone needs to remember that prophecy has been taken away from us. So we must be careful about “explaining” the “why” of what we are witnessing. Too often, there are those who have immediate explanations of every tragedy, every upheaval, and it is usually “explained” as Hashem punishing “us/them” for whatever was always on the individual’s mussar list before the specific occurrence (tzinus, sheitels, internet, service in the Israel army, et al).
But a believing Jew is not allowed to view such unusual occurrences through the eyes of “coincidences” (Rambam Hilchoth Ta’anit, 1:3). What we are experiencing worldwide today, and the huge impact it is having on our Jewish communities, must give us pause. One of my thoughts was how the situation is affecting norms that have become part of our Jewish culture, but have created negative consequences.
“ Bidud”, quarantine. We heard about this in Israel quite early in the process. Today it is widely acknowledged as one of the critical steps in stopping the spread of this contagious and, at this point, out-of-control virus. The coronavirus is requiring ever-increasing isolation. This week, shuls have suspended minyanim and closed down, shiurim have gone “on-line,” weddings are happening with attendees limited to the closest family.
We find “bidud” in the Torah as a response to the sin of lashon harah.
The requirement mandated by the Torah for a metzorah, loosely defined as leprosy, is ba’da’ad yeisheiv, mi’chutz la’macheneh moshva” (Vayikra 13:46). He shall sit in isolation, his place is outside of the camp. This is an additional stringency, beyond the normal requirement imposed on those who are tamei, ritually impure. While people who are in various states of ritual impurity can be together with each other, the metzorah is in complete isolation, separated even from other ritually impure individuals. Rashi, on that verse, explains (based on the Gemara Arachin 16b): Because he, through lashon harah, caused divisiveness between husband and wife, between an individual and his friend, he should also be separated (from the rest of the community).
And when Miriam spoke lashon harah about her brother Moshe, she became a metzora’at, requiring her to sit mi’chutz la’macheneh, in isolation, for seven days ( Bamidbar 12:9-15).
We have become accustomed to a culture awash in lashon harah. Our media is built on it. Our shuls and kiddushim, even our simchas, nurture conversations punctuated with lashon harah without our even realizing it. As we are being forced to minimize our interactions with our friends and neighbors, there is an opportunity to spend time in introspection, similar to that expected of the metzorah isolated because of lashon harah.
If we want to carry these thoughts in an additional direction, we might take note of the jarring fact that our shuls are now closing down all activities. As we are being deprived of the opportunity of davening with a minyan, being forced to daven at home, we should take the opportunity to refocus on the quality of our communication with the Almighty, hopefully without distractions.
And the fact that we will be observing our simchas with a very small circle of family can give us pause to think about how “out of hand” our simchas have become, both in the amount of money expended as well as the burden placed on people to be in attendance.
One final thought on the spiritual potential that lies hidden in the isolation being imposed upon us.
Rav Volbe (Alei Shur, Volume II, pp. 413-415) speaks about the importance of recognizing one’s uniqueness and individuality. Rav Volbe terms one who lacks an appreciation of their uniqueness a “stam adam,” one who is “just like everyone else.” If a person allows his personality and behaviors to be fashioned by his environment and social conditioning, never thinking carefully about what he is doing and why, he quickly becomes “just like everyone else.” He lacks any sense of his unique purpose. The result is the need to always be around people, since he is bored when he is alone. How boring it is to spend time with someone who has nothing special or interesting about him! To counter this phenomenon, which Rav Volbe identified decades ago, he suggests (and he instituted the practice as a Yeshiva mashgiach) that one set time every week to be alone, simply be with himself. Get to know your SELF. He used to tell how many of his students found this a very scary experience. They didn’t like the person they were meeting and spending time with.
If the fear of being alone, the need to always be around people, was a problem decades ago, today it has been significantly amplified. Surrounded by internet (high speed, of course), smart phones, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other means of connection that, given my age bracket, I probably don’t even know about – we are always “connected.” We are never alone. Certainly these tools have become valuable vehicles to ensure that we can access Torah as well as necessary information and communication in our daily lives. But the downside has been the inability to ever be alone. We simply lack the opportunity to spend time with ourselves. We lose a sense of our individuality, our uniqueness, our special place in Hashem’s world.
The isolation being imposed on us due to the coronavirus presents an opportunity to spend time with our selves, getting to know ourselves better. And of course this should extend to our spouses and children, with whom our harried lives don’t always allow us to spend sufficient time.
The speed in which the world has been upended is breathtaking. And the unpredictable nature of this world-wide phenomenon shows the limits of man’s control over Hashem’s world. What is under our control is the personal spiritual growth we can take for the situation. As we pray for the welfare of all people and a speedy solution to the spreading virus, let us utilize the opportunities before us.
Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky is co-founder and dean of both Shapell’s/Darche Noam and the sister seminary for women, Midreshet Rachel v’Chaya.