Wednesday, February 10, 2021

4 Lessons We Have Not Learned During COVID

Guest Contribution By Rabbi Shmuel Maybruch

Rabbi Shmuel Maybruch
It has been a year since Coronavirus became a household word. Last Adar, it began to make international headlines and impact how people across the world celebrated Purim. After months of lockdowns, quarantines, tests, vaccines, and demonstrations, how have we done, personally and as a community?

If you ask yourself these questions earnestly, you might be very disappointed with what you find. The Chillul Hashem that takes place in international media is an almost insignificant part of the story. What is a lot more important are the gaping holes it has exposed in our own perspectives. 

Here are 4 lessons that we have not learned during Covid-19:

Appreciate individuals

Certain populations are more prone to being affected severely. Often, the goal of national limitations was to protect those people. We believe in the importance of the life of an individual, even if it causes discomfort for the masses.

During Matan Torah, Hashem exhorted Moshe Rabbeinu to make sure that people would not ascend Har Sinai (Shemos 19, 21). He explained that if the nation would mistakenly ascend, “וְנָפַ֥ל מִמֶּ֖נּוּ רָֽב -  and many of it will fall.” The Torah’s use of the singular leads Rashi to comment, “כָּל מַה שֶּׁיִּפֹּל מֵהֶם, וַאֲפִלּוּ הוּא יְחִידִי, חָשׁוּב לְפָנַי רָב - any amount that falls, even if he is an individual, is considered before me like many.”

No one falls through the cracks. Even if the one that inappropriately went on Har Sinai would have been labeled “high risk” or “with other complications,” G-d would have viewed his untimely end as a tragedy, as if many died.

There are people that felt that if their age group is at low risk, they should continue with aspects of their routines. Some even maintained that Halacha demanded it.

This argument has a basic flaw. It doesn’t demonstrate understanding of a pandemic. Pandemics need universal support to stop them. If people act in their own interests, others will suffer. Pandemics require all hands on deck, even those that think that they will not be affected too severely.

We have been quick to emphasize our own routines at the expense of the lives of others. It is easier to do that when people are marginalized by age, condition, or handicap. Hashem considers them as significant as a multitude of people. Do we? 

Violating rules has drastic consequences

Israel just concluded its fourth lockdown. After six weeks, cases had not gone down significantly. Does that sound strange to you? A month and a half in lockdown and the number of cases stayed the same?

The answer was highlighted by Dr. Nachman Ash, former Coronavirus czar, as reported by the Jerusalem Post. Ash “argued that the reason the lockdown has not been working has less to do with the British mutation and more to do with the fact that the people are no longer inclined to listen to the rules.” Here it is again. We really cannot listen.

Restrictions could have served as a warning siren: “There is a major pandemic going on. Experts are extraordinarily concerned!” It could have been a call to arms for people to do more than the legalities required to protect themselves and their communities. Instead, people felt the urge to find loopholes to the restrictions.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Even if few people break rank and show that rules are meaningless to them, it increases the rate of infection for others. More importantly, it creates a general feeling of flippancy, even among those that want to be careful.

This is also highlighted by Rashi in the same pasuk that discusses boundaries around Sinai. The Torah commands, “הָעֵ֣ד בָּעָ֑ם פֶּן־יֶהֶרְס֤וּ אֶל ה׳ לִרְא֔וֹת - command the people, because they might break through (the barrier) to Hashem in order to see.” The word “יֶהֶרְס֤וּ” connotes “breaking through” or “destroying.” Why does the Torah use such severe imagery for someone who simply traverses the fence? Rashi explains, “כָּל הֲרִיסָה מַפְרֶדֶת אֲסִיפַת הַבִּנְיָן, אַף הַנִּפְרָדִין מִמַּצַּב אֲנָשִׁים הוֹרְסִים אֶת הַמַּצָּב” - any destruction erodes the foundation of the building. Similarly, those that separate from the stance of other people destroy the stability of the entire establishment.”

Did we understand that dodging or circumventing restrictions could destroy the entire edifice? It did. 

Misplacing religious emphasis

Human life has extreme priority in Jewish thought. Halacha teaches us to override the most severe prohibitions in the interest of pikuach nefesh. In contrast, when global pikuach nefesh was at stake, we could not take the Torah’s approach to heart. Most coronavirus precautions demanded that people forgo minhagim or fulfillment (not violation of) of a mitzvah derabanan, in the interest of stopping a pandemic.

Yet, we prioritized tefillah betzibur the way we want it to be, having simchos, clandestine Torah leaning, and yeshivos running as normal. If you could ask Hashem if that is what He wanted, do you think He would answer in the affirmative? Is that the approach of Halacha?

Rashi again comments on this phenomenon. The Torah greatly emphasizes the importance of drawing clear boundaries around Har Sinai. Rashi (19, 21) explains that someone might have been overcome by religious passion to get closer to Hashem and would have mistakenly ascended the mountain. If he would have listened to that internal voice and gone up, he would be punished with death. It would be a distortion of religious enthusiasm, erroneous and punishable. Hashem cautioned that people were prone to feeling misplaced religious fervor and violating Halacha. Did we learn that lesson? 

Selfishness is rampant

The coronavirus has demonstrated that there is widespread disease in society. It has destroyed many more lives than any pandemic - the sickness of selfishness. If one had to boil down behavior during this period, it exudes selfishness and acts of self interest. It is so prevalent in our society that it is almost hard to notice. We have grown immune to it.

When one acts in self interest, it is hard to see, understand, or even listen to another person’s perspective. There have been recent calls in our community for “shalom,” harmony, or understanding each other. Those are beautiful and worthwhile, as long as one is able to step out of his own circle of self interest. True harmony and a real relationship - with one’s spouse, friend, or community -  can only exist when one acts in the interest of others, not just oneself.

We live in a world guided by self interest. Are we able to genuinely care about others, or at least act in their interests, too? 

It seems that the pandemic is far from over. The good news is that we still have time to change. As we review the story of Matan Torah, can we improve? Hopefully we can, and as משנכנס אדר our community will have many reasons to be מרבין בשמחה.

Rabbi Shmuel Maybruch,MSW is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW), dating and relationship coach, and experienced rabbi. He holds a B.A. in psychology from Yeshiva University and a Masters from the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. He was also formerly S’gan Mashgiach Ruchani in Yeshiva University and was the founding Rabbi of the Shenk Shul of Washington Heights. He studied in Yeshiva Shaar Hatorah and then in Yeshiva University’s Katz Kollel and advanced Wexner Kollel Elyon. He currently resides in Israel.