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Some Reflection from Before Rosh HaShanna, But Still Pertinent Today
Some Reflection from Before Rosh HaShanna, But Still Pertinent Today
Written from my vantage point, as a Torah observant Jew in Israel. Looking back at the year, reflecting on what was I think that we can all say with confidence that this year… was a really tough year. The Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr David (where I teach) has mentioned to me that “if someone would have told you how difficult this year (according to the Jewish calandar) was going to be, you would have never believed them.” It’s so true. Millions of people, sick and dying. Millions more whose livelihoods have been turned upside-down. Our Battei Knesset (houses of prayer) closed, and our elderly and infirm at home, hiding in their homes. Who could have, or would have ever imagined this scenario? Indeed, it is so true. I certainly, we certainly would never have imagined that a pandemic, a mageifa (Hebrew) would happen. All this means is that we are lacking in emunah. Every single year, a great many times over the course of the year, we beg HaShem to save us from plagues/pandemics. For example, in the Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, Our King) prayer, we pray me’na mageifa m’amecha (prevent a plague (pandemic) from your people). During our Rosh haShanna and Yom Kippur prayers, in the ne’taneh tokef prayer, we mention all sorts of ways that people die, begging HaShem that we should be granted life and not die in any of these ways. One of the ways mentioned there is u’mi b’mageifa (and who will (die) of plague). What these prayers are trying to drive home to us is clear, there are always pandemics, it’s just that – baruch HaShem! – we have been thus far spared their effects. Just wandering down memory lane, many pandemics come to mind: bird flu, swine flu, SARS and more. They are prevalent in the world, it’s just that we haven’t really been on the receiving end. So no, we couldn’t have imagined this happening to us, and to the world as we know it… but we should have. Our sages, ob”m, teach us that there is nothing that happens in the world that isn’t for the sake of Israel. If there are hurricanes slamming down on the coastline of the United States, that is – in some way – for Israel. When a tsunami struck in Japan in 2011 and devastated the coastline, that was for Israel. (There were even headlines in Japan that blamed the Jews for it(!!!) and despite the ridiculousness of that statement, according to our sages, ob”m, it’s true). Tornados, landslides, earthquakes and pandemics. ALL OF IT IS FOR ISRAEL. There are two reasons that these things happen because of Israel. Either because our Great and Holy G-d, HaShem, King of Kings, is protecting Israel from some calamity that our enemies want to meet upon us; or, because we are supposed to take note of what happened, to take it to heart and change ourselves for the better as a result. Over the past twenty years we have heard numerous times about these pandemics, we read with interest about the suffering that was meted to the places that were affected by them, and then … we turned the page and kept reading. We didn’t learn the lesson. We didn’t wake up and become better people as a result. But HaShem, blessed be He, has mercy on His people. He doesn’t visit punishment on us right away. In His mercy, He shows us – to those of us who take notice – of how it slowly, but surely creeps closer to us. Just like the tza’ra’as affliction, a person who is deserving, say our sages, ob”m, doesn’t immediately get punished directly. First it afflicts his home. If he doesn’t pay attention, thinking “stuff just happens”, then HaShem brings it a little closer to home. Now, it appears on his clothing. Then, and only then, if he still doesn’t get it, does HaShem bring the nega on a person’s own body. Every year we have been reading u’mi b’mageifa, every so often we have seen the pandemics creeping closer, and closer to us, and we paid it no attention… until it was upon us as well. We have been asleep, and HaShem is sending us a message: Wake up! You’re not doing what you are supposed to be doing in the world! You’re missing the point of it all! My people, Israel! The holy Rambam, in the laws of teshuva (repentance) writes that even though the reason why we blow the shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh haShanna is a gezerat ha’kasuv (a heavenly decree, i.e. we don’t know the real reason behind it) THERE IS A HINT IN IT. What’s the hint? Says the Rambam “Wake up, o’ you who are dozing, from your lethargy, and those who are (fully) asleep, awaken from your slumber! Search and review your actions, (note how poor your performance has been over the past year, and resolve to change) and do teshuva. (Return to the pristine state of purity and holiness that you are supposed to be on.) Woe unto you, says the Rambam, those who have lost their greatness to the hevlei ha’zman, the folly of your times. Awaken, o’Israel! The mageifa is upon us! It’s no longer over yonder! It’s here amongst us! Yet, Rosh haShanna has passed us by, and most of the ten days of repentance, and despite our heartfelt prayers… the number of the afflicted, the sick and the dying in the hospitals is growing. Now is the time, that we all ask ourselves the most amazing of questions. The most important, the most gratifying, the most painful. And that question is… whose fault is it? Ask around, anywhere in Israel, who is at fault for the situation that we find ourselves in today and you’ll hear different answers. Depending, of course, based on who it is that you are asking. “It’s the irreligious!”, some will say. Others will say “it’s the tziyonim (the Zionists)!”, others yet “the da’ti le’umi” and others still “the charedim”. Isn’t the blame game just so satisfying? Why do we do this? Because we all look around and say to ourselves, each and every community about itself, “Look what a wonderful society we have created!” “My community,” we all say to ourselves, “is so correct that it can’t be our fault!” everyone says. Is it any wonder why we’re still fasting on the 9th of Av? Is it any wonder that our Holy Temple isn’t standing in Jerusalem today in all of its holiness and glory? As long as there is someone else who is to blame, then I don’t have anything to worry about, right? “WAKE UP!” shouts the shofar. “PLEASE, MY NATION, WAKE UP!” says HaShem “take note of what’s going on around you. Change for the better!” U’MI B’MAGEIFA!!!!!!! To an extent, the irreligious are correct in blaming the religious communities. The Brisker Rav, Rav Chaim of Brisk, takes note in his derashos on the navi Yonah of an amazing thing. Yonah, son of Amittai, is told to bear prophecy to the city of Nineveh. Yonah runs away and is famously swallowed by the whale. Yet just before that, while the boat that he is in is floundering around, and everyone on board is afraid for their lives, Yonah is takin’ a shluf (Yiddish for sleep) on the lower level. The people above are doing what they can, they take out their idols and everyone is praying to them with all of their intent and intensity. When they offer to draw lots to see who is at fault for the situation that they find themselves in, Yonah announces to them bishvi’li ha’tzara ha’zos, “this affliction is all because of me.” Notes the Brisker Rav, what? It’s not because of all of the idol worship going on? It’s not because of the promiscuity, the underhandedness, or any of the other bad character traits and sins that everyone else on the boat has? The guy who has only one fault, he’s the cause of it all? Says the prophet: yes. It’s all my fault. The other people, they have some excuse for their actions. They may actually not know any better. But you, o’ religious Jew, who has been taught right from wrong, who had guides and teachers to show you the way, when we get it wrong – it’s a more severe problem. My brothers and sisters of Israel, all of you who are religious and believe in HaShem and His Torah, we are to blame! We are to blame collectively, and we are to blame individually. Let me ask a poignant question. If our society is doing well, if it is the society that it is supposed to be, then why are we getting the blame for spreading the virus? I’m not asking if the claim is true or not, that’s irrelevant. See, if our society, the Shomrei Torah u’Mitzvos (guards/practitioners of G-d’s Torah and His commandments), was the utopian society it was supposed to be, shouldn’t everyone be pointing to us as paragons of how to do it right? “Hey everyone!” it should be ringing in the world news everywhere. “If you want to see how it’s done, look at how those religious Jews are doing it! That’s how it’s done” we should be hearing from every corner… but we don’t. It is my feeling, that in addition to the message of HaShem’s mercy that we learn from the story of Yonah, another reason that we read it as the haftarah (prophets’ portion, read weekly and on holidays and fast days) of Yom Kippur is for this verse. Bishvili ha’tzara ha’zos. It’s my fault! I am to blame. I must change. If the world today isn’t the utopia that it is supposed to be, it’s not everyone else’s problem, it’s because of me. It’s because I have not changed myself. Because I have not been doing, or not been abstaining from that which I am supposed to be doing. I am to blame. The world was created with only one man, say our sages, so that everyone should say to themselves bish’vili nivra ha’olam. For me, alone, HaShem would have made the entire world too. To allow for me to reach my potential the entire world is worth it. But I also have the ability to destroy it if I miss the point of it all. If we cannot pray together in the battei Knesset (the temples) it’s because I am not treating them with enough respect. If we can’t join together for simchas, it’s because of my lack of respect for my fellow man. Bishvili ha’tzarah ha’zos. I am to blame. I’m the one who needs to change. If the world isn’t the place it’s supposed to be, it’s because we, the Jewish people aren’t what we are supposed to be. We didn’t pay attention. We didn’t wake up and become what we are supposed to be. My people, Israel! We are supposed to be a light unto the nations! A kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. The nations of the world are supposed to (and do!) look to us for their inspiration. We are supposed to be an example of a utopian society, that they can see and learn to model themselves after. If the world hasn’t become what it is supposed to be, that’s because we are not the people we are supposed to be. And we aren’t the people that we are supposed to be because we are all to preoccupied blaming our problems on what everyone else is doing… instead on each of us working on ourselves, and each of us making sure that I AM DOING WHAT I AM SUPPOSED TO BE DOING. “But Rabbi,” people that I have discussed this matter with have told me “what difference does it make if I do it? Everyone else still isn’t!” While that is true, if everyone else isn’t doing it, what you do won’t necessarily have much effect, however!!!!!! IF WE ALL STOP USING THIS AS AN EXCUSE FOR ME NOT TO DO IT… it will make all of the difference in the world. Does doing the right thing require of me to give up some of my comfort, some of my time, some of my peace of mind? Yes, it does. But I am here to tell you that to do so is to be a real oved HaShem. A true servant of G-d. Isn’t that what the Torah is all about? It’s about giving up what I want to do, or just feel like doing, in order to do what I need to do. To do right not because I feel like it, or even that I am to be rewarded for it, but because in doing so I become connected to something of actual good and worth. My people, Israel! We can argue about the pandemic until our faces are blue (hopefully not from a need for a respirator), but right now in Israel, our medical establishment (lockdown aside) is asking of each and every one of us 3 very small things: correctly wear a disposable surgical mask, social distance, and wash/sterilize your hands. If we would listen to them to perform melachos on Shabbos, don’t you thing we should in this instance as well? Imagine if all of our Torah-keeping society would be seen as doing this without any games, do you think that the rest of our brothers and sisters would look to blame us for spreading the virus? Of course, not. It should be clear, however, that I am not only talking about “following the virus rules” here. It’s also true of our own personal adherence to HaShem’s Torah, and His mitzvos as well. The virus is just a symptom, my brothers and sisters. It is bringing to the surface, revealing to us something about ourselves and how truly connected we are to HaShem and His Torah. But the underlying truth is this: You have no power to change anything in the world but yourself. But, if you change yourself for the better, you will have changed the entire world as well. _____________________________________________________________________  I don’t recall where at this time. It’s in parshas Metzorah for sure though.  Yes, I am aware of the confusing and conflicting messages that we are receiving in the media all of the time. I’m going to assume, for the sake of sanity, that the government isn’t lying about the matter and that they are not all morons creating panic for nothing, and endangering the economy and the lives of so many people on a whim. I will state, that in today’s world there are a great many people publishing a great many things about any aspect of the ongoing pandemic because it is a golden opportunity to “get their name out in the limelight” on a topic that is on the forefront of everyone’s mind. Anyone who finds anything that could be spinned as front page news has a very clear, very strong bias to publish their findings without any regard of the panic and/or damage it may do. Please take that into consideration when weighing in on this issue.  Not that they are not held accountable for this. Not all lack of knowledge, is unwilful lack of knowledge. Everyone has a drive to want to know about life and how to live it. Be”H, in my upcoming book, Core Emunah 3: Me & My G-d I try to explore this issue as best as I can.  For it to afford any protection to others, on the off-chance that I am infected, but have no symptoms, it must cover fully from above the nostrils until under the chin. If your nose is exposed – you cut the effectiveness. It’s not a kameya (a ward) against sickness, so wearing it on your chin does nothing. It is to prevent me from possibly infecting others.  Anything less seems to be almost, if not totally ineffective.
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