The damage that the COVID-19 virus is wreaking just on a local level, putting aside the devastating damage it has caused globally, is staggering. Renowned conservative commentator Glenn Beck posted to his Instagram page last week that he has a 90-year-old neighbor who told him that he has never lived through anything quite like this. That is quite a statement for a near-centenarian.
I am not going to address the global aspect of this virus. As this is a Jewish newspaper, I will address the aspects of it that are relevant to us. Perhaps the greatest point of contention created by the onset of this pandemic is the status of all yeshivos, shuls, and religious venues. This is an issue that should have concerned the rabbanim and the poskim, but has been played out in the arena of public discourse as almost everything is in the era of social media.
This is the first issue that needs to be addressed. In many cases, especially in dealing with an issue of this magnitude, where the dissemination of basic medical and safety information is of utmost importance, the ability to do that with the push of a button is invaluable. However, there are issues of guidance and leadership that need to be made public by the people who hold leadership positions, and we are meant to wait for the authoritative word on these matters and follow suit.
As the current issue is of a medical nature, one that medical practitioners themselves are at a loss as to how to deal with, the sensitivity necessitated by the medical experts in concert with the rabbanim is all the more magnified. There is such a race these days to be the first to report the news that people are reporting deaths before anyone has died, and letters of communal import are being leaked to the public before they have been approved. Mishaps of this nature lead to the great public confusion that we are currently enduring. It used to be that when someone had a legal query about a chicken or even of a more pressing medical nature, they visited a rav, laid out the she’eilah in all of its details, the rav rendered his decision, and everyone went forward. If there was a communal question that needed a more public decision, a letter went out or the rabbanim addressed it in their sermons to their congregations. Often issues would arise where the poskim in Eretz Yisrael would rule one way and those in chutz la’aretz would rule in a different way, and each community followed the ruling of the posek of their locale. Today, however, social media — which a moment ago was so invaluable for the instant accessibility of vital information — is being used to confound the masses and contradict authoritative rulings in the arena of guidance on a halachic level at a time when it is so badly needed.
We are living through epic, historic times that many of us have not heretofore experienced. This necessitates a return to reticence, a cessation to the incessant dissemination of videos and memes purely for the purposes of entertainment or to cause panic or pandemonium because they aren’t constructively contributing to alleviating the dire effects that this virus has caused.
However, the one thing that remains the same even with the onset of a global pandemic is our Yiddishkeit and our adherence to the timeless tenets of Torah and mitzvos. Whether or not we daven with a minyan or continue going to the mikvah every day, there are legal, halachic experts who are meant to decide these issues for us, and we should allow them the space and the presence of mind to weigh all of the details of these questions and render their conclusions for their respective communities.
This leads me to the next issue, an idea that seems to me would apply to the current situation we find ourselves in and that concerns the notion of public tefillah gatherings to ward off global phenomena similar to the one we are currently enduring. I remember reading a chronology of Reb Nachman of Breslov’s harrowing trip to Eretz Yisrael. The journey was fraught with relentless turbulence on the high seas, leaving all on board in the clutches of death. Reb Nachman tried as hard as he could to remain incognito during the duration of the trip; however, despite all of his efforts there were a couple of women on board who, after hours of tearful prayers and no end in sight to the danger, began pleading with Reb Nachman to intercede to ensure the safety of all aboard. Reb Nachman replied: “If you all would be silent like I am, all would end fine.”
There are times that are just so dire that in order to get through we need to place our complete trust in G-d. Not trust in our power of prayer or in the words of Torah, because those are all revelations of G-dliness. We need to trust in G-d Himself.
I also have a more contemporary story, featuring a personality not of Reb Nachman’s stature but a political leader of Israel during the Yom Kippur War — Levi Eshkol. It was 1973, so I wasn’t yet around to experience it, but I read about it in detail in writings by the late Ambassador Yehuda Avner whose literary power was such that readers of his book The Prime Ministers are transported to another place and time. Israel was caught off guard by the Arab attack during Yom Kippur of 1973 and Avner relates that the air of desperation in Israel and in the prime minister’s office was palpable as the country awaited a statement, perhaps a battle cry, from their commander-in-chief.
They got a battle cry alright. Eshkol’s mouth to the mic fell mute and he broke down in sobs over Israel’s airwaves. While it may not have emboldened the Israeli public or given them the confidence and sense of reassurance that they were looking to get from their leader, it did convey that their reliance needed be placed at the doorstep of Hashem, the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
This reminds me of a teaching I once heard in the name of Reb Yisrael of Ruzhin on the verses in Tehillim, chapter 13: “Until when, G-d, will You eternally forget me? Until when will You conceal Your countenance from me? Until when will I take counsel in my soul, anxiety in my heart daily?”
It seems like King David has many questions of the Aibershter. The Ruzhiner opens our eyes to the answer that is lying there before us in black-and-white. The third verse, explains the Ruzhiner, is King David’s answer: As long as we produce counsel and devise schemes as if the solutions to the problems that we face are at hand, that causes G-d to hide His countenance from us.
We need to continue davening and learning because that is what we as Jews do. Whether it is with a minyan or without a minyan is for the rabbanim and medical experts to determine, but what we all need to realize — rabbanim, medical professionals, and lay people alike — is that our way out of this is in the hands of G-d alone.