By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
It was the first day of school for two girls at different schools. One young girl, upon hearing how rigid School A was about masks and social distancing, remarked, “Wow! Our school was not like that at all!” She continued, “In our school, if you want to wear a mask you can, but you don’t have to. If you want to social distance, you can, but you don’t have to.”
Let us, for a moment, enter the minds of the COVID policy makers from each school. It may not necessarily be correct, but for the purposes of this discussion, let us assume it is. Let us peer into what, perhaps, the health coordinator may be thinking:
School B health coordinator: “Look, we cannot make our children and parents crazy. This is all political. No one is really dying anymore. Watch, the day after the election, all this COVID craziness will end. Besides, kids don’t really get it. It is all overblown. I cannot say so publicly, because I want to keep my job and the mask-wearing, social distance loonies will have my head. So, I will just adopt a ‘if you want to you can, if you don’t want to it’s fine’ policy.”
School A health coordinator: “I cannot believe how crazy and utterly irresponsible our community has become. Don’t they realize that our shuls, schools, and weddings are Ground Zero for the second COVID wave we are experiencing right now?!? Did they forget what just happened a few months ago? I am not going to let this happen to our school! We are going to have rigid compliance. True, it will be hard, near impossible, but we must remove the lax attitude and I will do my best!”
We now temporarily switch to an analysis of the fourth chapter of Megilas Esther.
Esther sends Hatach to Mordechai, in the city square in front of the king’s gate. Mordechai tells Hatach all that happened, all about the Franklins that Haman promised to pay to the king for the right to destroy the Jews. He also gives him a copy of the law proclaimed in Shushan calling for their annihilation, to show Esther and to tell her about it.
He instructs her to go to the king to beg and plead with him on behalf of Klal Yisrael. Hatach does so.
Esther tells Hatach to tell Mordechai, “Everyone knows that any man or woman who goes to the king and enters the inner courtyard without being summoned, his is but one verdict: execution; except for the person to whom the king extends his golden scepter — only he shall live. I have not been summoned to come to the king for 30 days now.”
Mordechai responds harshly to Esther: “Do not think that you will escape the fate of all the Jews by being in the king’s palace. For if you will remain silent at this time, relief and salvation will come to the Jews from another source, and you and the house of your father will be lost. And who knows if it is not for just such a time that you reached this royal position.”
Two Forces Hashem Put in the World
Pain is actually a good thing. Let us look at the pain of something that is burning hot. We accidentally touch something that is hot. Because of the intense pain, we immediately remove our hand from it. This can save us from the blister that the body forms to cover the injury while the white blood cells come to fight off the bacteria while the new layer of skin is grown from the edges of the burn. It also saves us from the need for skin grafts in case the new skin can’t form quickly enough. It also saves us from the loss of mobility that happens when the body makes the wound smaller with the scar tissue formed.
Pain also brings us to the dentist. A small cavity is filled thus saving the tooth, preventing a root canal and possibly saving us from a heart infection as well.
Pain is a chesed Hashem as is the emotional pain of guilt. Guilt is a chesed Hashem that helps us do the right thing. It helps motivate us to call our mothers and help out those who are suffering. It helps us put the needs of others before our own.
But, sometimes, guilt can stay. Since we do not want to be in pain, that is where the self-deception comes in. “No,” we begin to think in order to assuage our guilt. “She deserved it. I didn’t say anything particularly mean. I was right and do not have to feel guilty about it.” Self-deception is how we can deal with the repercussions of paralyzing and devastating guilt.
Is self-deception a bad thing? Yes, and no. We find in the Gemara in Brachos (28a) that Rabban Gamliel was given a false vision in order to calm him down. When he was temporarily replaced as the rosh yeshiva of the academy, an incredible uptick in Torah learning took place. Rabban Gamliel was racked with guilt. Were his rigid policies responsible for the prevention of so much Torah learning?
Plugging It Back In
Let us say, chalilah, that our School B health coordinator is wrong. If, chalilah, a child got COVID-19 because of his or her lax policy and subsequently gave Bubby the virus, which caused her early demise, will he or she feel badly about it? Someone once explained that the whole parashah of eglah arufah was created by the Torah to sensitize ourselves of our responsibility for the welfare of others — but to do so in a manner that is not psychologically paralyzing. Is our quick dismissal of our own error because of self-deception warranted? If we engage in self-deception too early, that can be a bad thing. On the other hand, we see from the Gemara in Brachos 28a that it is sometimes necessary in order to allow people to function.
By the same token, let us imagine that our School A health coordinator was wrong and that he or she was responsible for causing a] widespread anxiety and depression and b] seriously hampering both Torah and secular learning. Would he or she feel guilty? Or would incorrect self-deception kick in?
[This author personally believes that the health coordinator of School A is correct in that although children may not be getting a serious form of COVID, the grannies, grandpas, and the immunocompromised are being placed at risk. Aside from that we are fulfilling numerous mitzvos by exercising extreme caution.]
Getting back to self-deception, the correct thought process is as follows: “Look, I believe that I did err in regard to how I handled X, Y, or Z. I feel bad about it and wish to do teshuvah to correct what was wrong in my thinking so that it will not happen again. Nonetheless, I will not destroy and paralyze myself in guilt because we are all human. I will have enough guilt to get me to do the right thing and to change for the future—but not to paralyze and devastate me. We have a loving Father who wants our teshuvah. If we do teshuvah b’ahavah, it will be counted as a mitzvah!”
Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at email@example.com.