It’s remarkable how a week can change our lives so drastically. We’ve officially entered uncharted territory, which scares all of us so much. Shuls, schools, and mikvaos are closing due to the spread of this dreaded disease, and, at least for a while, our lives will be different. In a short time, I’ve become an expert at operating in public spaces with just my elbows and in having my kids wash their hands 80 times a day.
For Chabad shluchim and shluchos, this is a most complicated reality. We are used to hosting countless guests, both local and visiting, at our homes, we are used to giving classes to the public and one-on-one every day, and we are used to visiting hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, college campuses, malls, and people’s homes all the time.
That has changed for the time being.
We are a balanced people, not forgetting our Jewish role to make this world a Divine garden, while ensuring we are doing our part in following the recommendations of the CDC and our local health experts. We are continuing to express our love for Hashem, His Torah, and His people, but in new ways.
This week’s double Torah portions, Vayakhel-Pekudei, address this contradictory reality. Vayakhel means “and he gathered,” the idea of bringing the masses together to focus on a common goal, the concept of “klal,” the “community.” Pekudei is “accounting of,” the idea of detailed counting and zooming in to the “p’rat,” the “individual.” As Jews, we always focus on the concept of “Kol Yisrael areivim zeh la’zeh,” we are all guarantors for each other. That can manifest itself through our communal involvement, which isn’t possible today, or through the care of each individual, creating a “soul community” despite social distancing.
Yet, in addition to the communal changes due to the coronavirus, we are dealing with unprecedented panic. For a guy like me, born in December 1981, this is a world I’ve never known. I never thought that right here in our beloved malchus shel chesed, republic of kindness, these United States, we’d be dealing with food shortages, toilet paper addictions, and a country in total disarray. Last Friday, as these thoughts rushed through my mind, I opened my sefer Toras Menachem, the preeminent volumes of the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of blessed memory. As I learn it daily, I happened to be at the farbrengen of the second night of Pesach 5716, during the early spring of 1956. I began reading and it was as if the Rebbe was talking directly to me:
Slaves eat matzah, unleavened bread, because it’s dough that didn’t even have 18 minutes to rise. A slave, says the Rebbe, doesn’t even allow himself 18 minutes to focus on the things that matter in his life. If we can’t give ourselves the time to focus on the greatness of Hashem, on all the blessings in one’s life, “the miracles of each and every day,” in the words of the Modim prayer, then we are internally enslaved. Being free means giving ourselves the time to focus on gadlus haBorei, the infinity of the Aibershter, putting ourselves in in a freer place.
I am a naturally anxious person. I panic on a good day about things that wouldn’t bother most people. Yet, just before candle lighting on Friday and again on Shabbos, I found myself sitting calmly, doing the only thing I could — reading Tehillim, the powerful words of King David, and I was comforted. “Hashem is my strength;” “G-d is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing;” “If the L-rd will not guard a city, its watcher keeps his vigil in vain;” and so on and so forth. It was full of words that change our thought processes, our emotional panic and hopelessness over losing “control.” It centers us to realize we are truly dependent humans who are at the mercy of our Creator.
We don’t know how this will all end, but it is my hope that we will emerge on the other side a better people, a more refined nation, and a tribe that has a solidified trust in the Creator of heaven and earth. A Bozeman friend was at Walmart the other day, along with his wife who is expecting any minute now. He was looking for baby wipes and couldn’t find any; they were sold out. So, with diapers in their cart they headed toward the checkout line, when a fellow Bozemanite, a “stranger,” walked up to them and said, “Do you need wipes?” When hearing they will be having a baby, he emptied half of his box of wipes and gave it to the couple.
Kindness to our fellow, faith in G-d, and adherence to the instructions of the health experts will get us through this! Hang tight through the Pekudei weeks; Vayakhel will be back soon!
Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, email email@example.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.