All of a sudden, the pursuit of achdus — togetherness — and our responsibility to one another require that we stay apart. A few weeks ago, had this course been suggested for whatever reason, it would have been deemed some kind of absurd and unworkable notion. This new direction requires not just a fundamental change in the natural flow of our daily lives but a total reversal of what we are all accustomed to.
My father used to say about some world events in the course of his life that, “Der velt kert zich ariba.” Loosely translated, that would mean that the world is turning upside-down.
Our world hasn’t necessarily turned upside-down yet, but in the interest of stemming the tide of this troubling worldwide virus, life as we know it has to slow down dramatically.
The president and the team behind him working on overcoming this actual scourge are urging us to slow down our otherwise breakneck-speed lifestyle that is symptomatic of these fast-paced and changing times. Essentially, they are asking us to dial back our lifestyle to what it was fifty, or even a hundred, years ago.
Perhaps we can call that, as the song says, “The End of the Innocence,” but that is what it seems we are going to need, and that means slowing things down.
As of earlier this week, the real problem was that the situation is still undefined and unstable. The good news is that eventually that is going to change; we will get a handle on the matter and be able to move forward — slowly, but hopefully with some certainty.
In the meantime, the fundamentals of our lives have been shaken. This is especially true in Orthodox Jewish life, a part of our existence from birth that has always been our rock and anchor.
All of a sudden, we are instructed not to go to shul — not on Shabbos, not in the morning for Shacharis, nor in the evening for Minchah or Ma’ariv. How many of us used to struggle to discipline ourselves to rise in the morning and make our way out, bleary-eyed sometimes, for shul on time for the morning minyan?
Now we are told that not going to shul anymore is a mitzvah, just like going to shul normally is. Now, if you step out and find a minyan somewhere, whether a sanctioned one or a “renegade” backyard or porch minyan, you risk being sanctioned and criticized as one who is contributing to the spread of the potential illness, while you thought you were doing your best to pray to G-d that He bring an end to this pandemic.
Before last Shabbos, I was thinking back to the last time I davened at home on a Shabbos morning. It wasn’t that long ago actually. It might have been about two or three years ago, when it snowed through Friday night and into Shabbos morning. As it was Shabbos, shoveling the snow was not an option and there was something like 20–25 inches of snow outside.
No one else was home; most of the children were married or away, so it was just my wife and me at home. I recall looking outside and thinking: Am I going to go out in the knee-deep snow and plow my way (so to speak) to shul? Instead, I looked for my tallis bag and flung my tallis over my shoulders, sat down on a couch, and began to daven at my own pace.
I remember telling my friends later that week that I had stayed home on Shabbos morning, and, in retrospect, I realized that I had not had such a deeply meaningful and fulfilling davening in quite some time. It was just nice, the whiteness of the outside and the contrasting words on the pages of my Siddur.
I was thinking about doing the same thing last Shabbos, but then I was made aware that there were several shuls not far from me that were open for business, in a manner of speaking. Earlier that morning, before I decided what to do, I told my grandson to imagine that there was a snowstorm outside and that it was just too difficult to get to shul. I told him that there is a virtual snowstorm of sorts out there.
I was going to stay in, as many of the community rabbis recommended, but then it hit me that I had to see what was going on out there and what it was like on the mostly empty streets of the usually bustling Five Towns on a Shabbos morning.
It was chilly so I put on my coat, pulled up the collar, and began to walk in the direction of one of the three open shuls with a minyan. It wasn’t just the emptiness of the streets that was eerie; as I got closer to the shul, I had a sense that I might be doing something I should not be doing.
But how could that be? Since I was ten years old I had been trained to be focused on shul and davening. In yeshiva, if you missed the daily minyan or you missed davening, you’d better have had a good excuse.
Now it is imperative that we apply the brakes here and come to a screeching halt. It is necessary for the purpose of public safety to follow these directives. However, we are not only a stiff-necked people, according to the way Hashem designed us, because along with that trait we also carry a good measure of resourcefulness.
That is where the “backyard minyan” arrived on the scene, now a point of contention among local rabbis and government officials. I suppose that if our rabbis in consultation with health experts decided that our shuls need to be sealed shut lest the virus spread at a rate that will overwhelm our hospitals and health systems, the best thing is just to daven at home, and that’s that.
Somehow, many of us just cannot sit still no matter what the problem is. All of a sudden, everyone out there is minyan-conscious and wants to daven three times a day with a minyan regardless of the consequences. It is a wonderful thing that people feel that way, but, unfortunately, this is not the time for that.
This is the time to hunker down and wait this thing out. I don’t know about you, but I kind of like seeing my tallis and tefillin on a table near my desk here in my office at home. It’s a good opportunity to become reacquainted with not just your tallis and tefillin but with the words of tefillah in a quiet room in your home (if you have that luxury). Hear yourself say the words and beseech the One Above, Who created and rules our world, to continue to watch over us and reopen our shuls very soon.