I arose Thursday, March 19, strode down the stairs from my bedroom to the main floor in my house, whereupon I sat at the dining room table preparing to daven that morning. Then it hit me. What is going to be with the reading of the Torah? On Monday, the rabbinic leadership was still formulating a unified and authoritative proclamation with regard to how to deal with the issues of davening during this pandemic, so I participated in a minyan at one of the local shuls that was slow in implementing the edict of closure. But by Thursday, a day on which we read the Torah, I would not be able to, and it perturbed me.
I took the tallis off of my shoulders and ran out to the nearest shul. Try as I might, I could not get the door to open. Desperately pressing my face against the cold glass door, peering ever so intently through the inner window pane that led to the main sanctuary, I could see the Aron Kodesh at a distance but there was no way, on this day, that I was getting anywhere near there. The reality began to sink in that I would not hear the Torah reading on this day, and the thought gnawed at me.
Then came the questions: Why? Or rather, what? The answer to why I could not expect to unearth. Even Moshe asked G-d why certain things he could not understand happened, without getting a clear answer. If G-d wouldn’t answer Moshe He wasn’t going to answer me. However, the question that was really reverberating through my consciousness was: What? What does G-d ask of us during this period of quarantine when communal life as we’ve known it has come to a screeching halt, with no definitive end in sight.
As long as the world continues to turn on its axis, there will be those who claim to know the reasons why G-d does certain things. As if on cue, there were people digging up dirt on us as a people, finding flaws in our davening or perhaps the level of conversation as a reason for this devastating pandemic being unleashed upon us, suggesting that it is some sort of Divine retribution. I have definitely heard that one before!
I am aware of the need, even the halachah, of searching through our actions in reaction to misfortune, especially on the magnitude of this current pandemic. The Rambam cautions that dismissing calamity as the inevitable movement of nature is an act of stubborn cruelty. But whatever happened to the purity of the prayers of a quorum that gains immediate acceptance on high? I mean, people would even put themselves in harm’s way to daven with a minyan during such a large global outbreak due to the notion that the prayers of the masses ascend on high in unison. So how could the message that G-d is sending us with this global pandemic be that He is unhappy with our prayers? It just does not add up.
I recalled an aphorism I heard probably two decades ago in yeshiva from a rebbe who quoted the great Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch who quipped: “If I had it my way I would ban shul-going for 100 years, because the shuls are exquisitely beautiful but the homes are becoming increasingly ugly.”
I must admit, in the two decades since I heard this teaching I haven’t ever quoted it due to my inability to understand the implications of it. But as I sat and thought deeply about the message that G-d is sending us with this mass quarantine and the likelihood that this could remain the case over Pesach, somehow this teaching rose to the forefront of my mind, as if pleading for attention as a possible piece in the puzzle of what G-d expects of us at this time.
The following idea began to slowly take hold in my mind: Our lives as Jews have two dimensions. There is our place within the community of Jews, known in Hebrew as the tzibbur, whose letters comprise the words tzaddik, rasha, and beinoni; and there is our uniquely personal and intimate relationship with G-d. Think about it in terms of singing. There are fewer things more painful than having to listen to a tone-deaf person trying to sing. However, if we are among a crowd in shul, say, during Lecha Dodi, Kedushah, Hallel, or one of the other traditional sing-song piyutim, the participation of people who can’t sing adds to the strength of the sound but does not affect the tone of the choir. Similarly, from our perspective as a part of the community we belong to, we are an indestructible and untainted community called “netzach Yisrael lo yinachem v’lo yishaker,” or, as the Zohar puts it: “From the vantage point of Knesses Yisrael there is no possibility of sin or even demise.”
On the individual level that is certainly not the case. The concern with having to daven b’yechidus is that our prayers on an individual level get scrutinized, whereas as part of a tzibbur they are automatically accepted. Similarly, individuals are subject to the vicissitudes of life — growth, falling, failure, and even death — but on the communal level the Jewish people are eternal.
As I am writing this prior to Shabbos Vayakhel/Pekudei, which will not be read due to the closure of all shuls here during this period of time, this is the message that is conveyed in the names of these parshiyos: “Vayakhel” means to gather, which Moshe did by assembling the Jewish people to teach them about the laws of Shabbos. The second parashah, Pekudei, places an emphasis upon the parts of the Mishkan as opposed to the edifice in its entirety. This, more than anything, seems to be the inherent message — the balance between individual and community, more specifically our responsibility to ourselves in developing and expressing our uniquely personal and intimate relationship with G-d. We are being asked and encouraged to step out of the camouflage of the klal and align our individual relationship with the same purity of the klal.
If we stop and take notice of the context within which this is transpiring, this message continues to seem most accurate. The Gemara in Megillah states: “On the first of Adar we declare regarding the shekalim and the prohibition of kilayim.” The mitzvah of machatzis ha’shekel seems to be the flip side of the prohibition of kilayim. The half-shekel emphasizes our dependability on each other. Our half needs to join with the half of our peer in order to cumulatively become one. On the other hand, kilayim expresses the distinction of the two kinds that cannot be mixed.
This culminates in the Korban Pesach, of which Chazal speak of two, namely the paschal lamb, the Pesach Mitzrayim, offered in Egypt the year of the Exodus, and the one offered one year later, referred to as Pesach Doros. Pesach Mitzrayim was offered during the week and Pesach Doros was offered on Shabbos. Pesach Mitzrayim was more focused on the individual and Doros on the community. As a result, one year Pesach fell out on Shabbos and the bnei beseira approached Hillel to inquire into whether or not the Korban Pesach supersedes Shabbos. Hillel replied that the Korban Pesach is like any other communal sacrifice that supersedes Shabbos. It seems, however, that the bnei beseira forgot this law because while the paschal sacrifice is, on some level, a communal sacrifice, it shares some characteristics of an individual sacrifice as well, causing them confusion with regard to the law of that sacrifice.
As this past Shabbos was Shabbos Mevorchim Nissan, our absence from shul will preclude us from formally blessing the upcoming month. Perhaps G-d will bless this month of Nissan like He does the other first month, Tishrei, adding fullness and completion to the month of redemption that lies ahead. It’s interesting to point out that in the year of the Exodus, immediately preceding the redemption, G-d ordered the Jews into their homes during the plague of the firstborn in order to be spared. We are once again quarantined within our homes, and while I don’t know anything for certain, I have an eerie feeling that something major is in the pipelines.