The events of the past three months have knocked the wind out of us all. While the dangers still lurk on some level, and we’ll have to ease into our re-entrance to our daily routines, the continuous decline in COVID-19 cases and the decreasing occupancy in hospitals across the nation indicates that we are on the mend from this pandemic that ravaged our world.
This event will have a place in the history books. There is a difference between events of a historic nature and those that are characterized as defining events in our lives. History will continue to be made long after our lives in this world have ended. Records are being broken daily on a multiplicity of levels, and while that’s great for the statisticians and the people whose job it is to record these momentous accomplishments, the concrete impact that these historical achievements have in our lives and their ability to reflect in our legacies after 120 years is highly questionable.
A defining moment, by contrast, is one where one can look back and say with certitude that, sans this or that occurrence, his life would not have been the same. It’s a point in time that caused us to pivot and go in another direction from the trajectory of our lives up until then. So saying that we are living in historical times would not be enough. But to say that our lives have changed due to the effects of COVID-19 is extremely noteworthy and, I believe, accurate.
As a result of the stay-at-home measures implemented in order to flatten the curve and ultimately stop the spread of this virus, my wife and I have been taking a lot of walks in the evenings. Thankfully, despite the laundry list of regulations in the face of this pandemic, the CDC and other similar agencies encouraged individuals with their homes turned into offices and classrooms to get out and walk, catch a breather, and try to stay in shape with the gyms shuttered. So over the past few months we have gotten a view of Central Avenue from a number of angles and the feeling that has set in during this time is one of a new world.
After the diluvial waters receded in the days of Noach, the Torah tells us that he docked and exited the teivah on G-d’s command, and Chazal say that he saw a new world. Although the casualties during the mabul were far more numerous than the numbers of deaths to COVID-19, the level to which this pandemic is affecting Jewish communities the world over is unprecedented in my lifetime. Along with the empty streets and shuttered storefronts, the pandemic is contributing to feelings of sadness and a wariness over what occurred and the speculation of it repeating itself in the near future.
Sticking with the account of the mabul as the paradigm of a world-altering event, I’ll add that the Torah tells us that the rain fell for 40 days straight, which Chazal explain corresponds to the 40 seah of a mikveh. One of the kavanos of mikveh is that the act of a person submerging in the mikveh’s waters and then emerging is akin to a fetus that is enveloped by water in its mother’s womb and exits from it upon its birth into this world. It behooves anyone who made it out to the other side of these devastating events unscathed to look for ways, on one level or another, to begin again.
Early on, when it was clear that the outbreak of this virus that began in China had made it to our shores and was spreading quickly from one community to the next, I knew that I would have to do something as a merit to protect myself and my family from the effects of this debilitating illness.
I recalled at that time the article I wrote on the occasion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s 25th yahrzeit regarding my encounter with my Rebbe after the shivah of my esteemed late paternal grandfather in January 1990. The extraordinary aspect of that fateful meeting, at least for me, was when the Rebbe, after being introduced to me, said, “Mistama he will follow in the direction of the great-grandfather whose name he bears.”
I wrote then that the Rebbe’s words, spoken to me as an eight-year-old, have followed me ever since, weighing heavily upon my conscience, in part as a result of the divergent paths that I have come to embody growing up in a family split between Novardok on my maternal side and Chabad, which runs nine generations deep in my paternal pedigree.
As I frequently pay my respects at the graveside of the Rebbe in Old Montefiore Cemetery in the Cambria Heights section of Queens, I invariably have to pass the tziyun of my namesake who is interred within arm’s reach from the Rebbe’s ohel. I stop there for a moment or two, silently praying that I am doing my part in perpetuating the great legacy that he sowed through great self-sacrifice.
While I have made much progress since then in embracing the life of chassidus, there have always been aspects of that life that I have been unaccustomed to. One of those things was the issue of growing a beard, which I wrote then that I would address in an article of its own at a later, unspecified date. Neighbors and good friends of ours who had read the article then noted to me immediately afterward that they were looking forward to the article addressing the beard, which I can now say was only written half-heartedly.
Little did I know that less than a year later I’d be staring at a blank Google Docs page in the middle of a world-stopping pandemic, thinking of just how to break the news. My wife and kids gave me their full blessing and we decided, bli neder, that this resolution would represent another large step in fulfilling the blessing of the Rebbe to me back on that day in the winter of 1990, and would serve as a protection to us during the beginning of what turned out to be an extremely overwhelming three months.
With this decision behind us, I recall another occurrence that has crossed my mind often over the years since it had happened. I was at the wedding of a cousin in Crown Heights a number of years ago, when my cousin Rabbi Moshe Klein, a well-known sofer, mohel, and member of the Crown Heights community, had a little too much to drink when he turned to me and matter-of-factly said, “Yochanan, you’re going to have a beard one day. You might as well just let it grow now.”
I didn’t heed his advice then, but in my heart of hearts I knew that it was just a matter of time before it would happen, just as many other aspects of that blessing had unfolded.
Some people enjoy doing things in dramatic fashion. I am generally not one of those. For instance, when my wife and I got engaged at Bear Mountain, we walked around the lake until I mustered the courage to pop the question. It never dawned upon me to get engaged on a jumbotron in the middle of Times Square, nor do I think she would have particularly appreciated that either.
Because much of the beard growing played itself out over Sefirah, when there is a halachah to refrain from haircutting, I neglected to mention to my parents that we had decided to go this route. My mother has expressed her dislike for my beard a number of times throughout Sefirah, and I’m pretty sure she is expecting it to come off ahead of Shavuos. I guess if she reads this article she will find out that it’s going to be sticking around for now.
Since I became lazy towards the end of February, when I decided I would see how long I could go without being asked to shave, random people have asked me what the story is with my beard. In view of the changes COVID-19 has brought to this world, I say to them: “The world does not look the same anymore and neither do I.”