By Larry Gordon

In everything there is a silver lining, though it sometimes takes a long time to emerge. So let’s be pleased with the little things—and that includes that, as of now, there are no executive orders about restrictions related to cheesecake as we head into Shavuos.

Fortunately, while there may be some kind of shortage of meat products (the non-kosher variety), there seems to be plenty of cheese to go around. So apparently you can consume all the cheesecake you want over the holiday—as long as it’s not with more than ten people, or, if you live in New Jersey (thank you, Governor Murphy) 25 people if you’re outdoors. (Indoor get-togethers in New Jersey are still capped at 10.) On Monday, Governor Newsom announced that churches and shuls in California can have services at 25% of the sanctuary’s capacity, up to 100 people. Now we are getting somewhere.
Governor Murphy’s rationale was that it’s high-school prom season, and kids graduating have a tradition of gathering in groups of about 25 people to celebrate this great educational milestone. Some of his political opponents have challenged this and asked why religious services, shuls, and the like are still limited to ten, though it seems that for an outdoor service the same maximum of 25 would be allowed.

Why are major stores like Walmart or Costco permitted 50% of their allowable capacity while there is a different measure for religious institutions? Last week, I asked the young lady at the door at Target in Freeport, Long Island, how many people are allowed in the store at any one time and she said 114. Meanwhile, a big shul like the White Shul in Far Rockaway, for example, that can easily seat 600 people, is nevertheless limited to 10–15 people at any one time for now.

Let’s not get bogged down in what is quickly becoming an old conversation. Our shuls are opening, and though the allowable capacities may advance slowly, over the next few weeks we will hopefully crawl our way to some semblance of normalcy. For this week anyway, people are just following their hearts.

Some are back in shul in limited numbers, some are davening in outdoor minyanim, and others are still content with davening at home, as was the practice these last two months and more. You are treading on dangerous ground if you submit—especially in writing—that the signal to open shuls took place too soon and that the decision to wait two more weeks after the governors of New York and New Jersey said it was OK to begin services is warranted.

A matter that began with the objective of “flattening the curve” has evolved into two distinct schools of thought, which seem to be reflective of the divide that dominated the discussion about when to open. One is the idea that once we manage to get a hold on the spread of the virus that is truly the best that can be expected. That does not mean that we are resigned in any fashion to people dying as a result of contracting the virus.

Unfortunately, in the future, people will get the virus and take ill, as they will with any other numerous ailments, whether influenza or other maladies. If this possibility continues to be classified by poskim as “safek pikuach nefesh,” a potential danger to life, then, according to this interpretation of the halachah, it looks like our shuls should never really reopen. That would be the safest policy.

Even when there is a vaccine that will be available to the general public, the medical experts will tell you that the vaccine will not work 100% of the time. If a vaccine is effective in only 60–70% of the people who receive it, then it is considered successful. Is that “safek pikuach nefesh?”

Here are some observations on this dichotomy in the context of the Shavuos holiday.
Last week, in the Torah portion of Bamidbar, which is read when we are in shul just prior to this yom tov, there are some ideas relevant to what we are experiencing today. We are told that in the absence of the Beis HaMikdash, our shuls are a mikdash me’at, a miniature Beis HaMikdash, so to speak.

Prior to the building of our Holy Temple, we had a Mishkan that traveled with us through all of the years in the desert and then in Shiloh for more than 300 years. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz writes on last week’s parashah about the uniqueness of the Mishkan and its role in our lives, and I’m adding the relevance of that experience to our lives today with all the accompanying changes.

A stark contrast between the Mishkan and the Beis HaMikdash was the fashion in which we related to the Holy of Holies, the Kodesh HaKedashim, which existed in both. The Temple was sacked and destroyed more than 2,000 years ago; however, the site of the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem maintains its sacredness to this very day. The Mishkan, on the other hand, was routinely assembled and disassembled as the Jewish nation traveled along the way. Once the Kodesh HaKedashim in the desert was disassembled, the ground beneath it had nothing holy or sacred about it; it was just another part of the area that once supported the structure that housed G-d’s presence. People were able walk around the area where the Shechinah had rested just moments before, as if it had never been there.

That observation by Rav Steinsaltz struck a chord with me over last Shabbos as I davened Minchah at home that afternoon. If the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists (though it will be rebuilt soon), and our shuls are a junior Beis HaMikdash in its place, then while we were davening at home for all those weeks when our shuls were closed, our homes must have assumed that mikdash me’at status.

And that is very much like the Mishkan that traveled with the ancient Jewish people and which the Levites folded up and packed away when it was time to move. There we were at home, davening to Hashem at a location in our house, and perhaps less than an hour later, one of our children would sit down and play with his or her Lego set in the exact place where we had bowed in davening to Hashem.

Will going to shul ever again be what it once was for everyone? I’m hopeful that someday we will again experience our new/old reality. Looking around in Gourmet Glatt the other day, I observed a great variety of cheesecakes for yom tov. Thankfully, some things in our lives are unchanging and consistent. Chag sameach to all.

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