The Pretext

The United States is experiencing paroxysms of violence that seem to erupt every now and then, oddly enough (perhaps not?) in years that feature contested elections. Think about the riots of 1968, 1992, 2016 and the current explosions and it is hard not to conclude that there is some connection – even though it has generally led to Republican victories that could not have cheered the rioters.

Nonetheless, it should be possible to denounce the despicable murder of George Floyd and its use as a pretext for the contemptible violence that resulted. Unfortunately, I tend to take a more lawyerly view of these proceedings after the visceral horror of the crime itself recedes. There is much that remains to be clarified: the look on the officer’s face while murdering another human being in cold blood was itself shocking. He was too calm, too detached, a sign of a sadistic psychopath – or what? Did he have a history of violence in his dealings with his arrestees, black or white? Surely this wasn’t the first black he arrested, and some for more serious crimes than in the instant case, but he didn’t murder any of them. I haven’t seen or heard a shred of evidence that the man was indeed a racist (he probably is, but nothing has surfaced to date – no internet posts, no attendance at KKK rallies, etc.). The modern narrative, though, is that any crime or even untoward act by a white to a black must have a racist origin. That is obviously the result of the identity politics game so popular today – you are not an individual but part of a group – but the narrative goes unquestioned. It could be that some racist motivation will emerge (or some other vicious rationale unrelated to racism) but worse than a white killing a black is just that a human being killed another human being.

That basic truth never seems to enter the equation. Thus, this past weekend saw 18 blacks murdered in Chicago by other blacks, and 16 more murdered the week before. That strangely evokes no outrage. Three years ago in Minneapolis a black police officer shot and killed a white woman. Race played no role in the evaluation of the case, which, of course, had it been the reverse,  would have resulted in swift and relentless rage. That, annually, whites in America are shot and killed by police twice as often as are blacks is also ignored, so more is afoot than this one brutal, inexplicable and evil act.

As strange as it sounds given the crime, the system actually works. No one has attempted to defend or rationalize the former police officer’s heinous crime. There has been no blue wall of silence; instead, there has been wall-to-wall and coast-to-coast condemnation on every side of the political spectrum.  He was charged with homicide, is being held in prison in lieu of bail, will be tried, likely convicted, sentenced to the maximum, probably not executed but effectively receive a life sentence because he will never be paroled. And that is how it should be.

So how do we get from there to this – in (Democrat-controlled) city after city in America, protests, demonstrations, rioting, looting, violence, mayhem and anarchy? Note that just last week, a synagogue in Cote-St.-Luc was vandalized, with the premises ravaged and Torah scrolls strewn about.  Canadian Jews in response did not torch downtown Montreal. So too, in the wake of the dreadful attacks on Jews in the metropolitan area in the last year, we didn’t go and raid Nordstrom. In the last month, there have been numerous demonstrations against the draconian lockdown rules that have destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people. The protesters were very angry – but there was not one instance in which they burglarized and looted the stores in which they wanted to shop.

These spasms of carnage always explode because of perceived racism, and they are more frequent in America because of the dearth of pushback, the fecklessness of the political class, and most importantly, the absence of values education. To condemn the murder and not condemn the rioting, as some moral poseurs have done, is virtue-signaling of the most hypocritical kind. To date, more people have been killed as a result of the rioting than the one unfortunate victim of police brutality in Minneapolis; that should be receiving more attention.

The virtue-signaling is particularly odious because the remedy proffered is an impossibility. To say that racism should not exist is like saying Jew hatred should not exist or nay other hatred, for that matter; it is true but not particularly helpful. Hatred is part of the human condition and has existed since the dawn of creation and will endure until the Messianic era. Calling for utopia is an empty gesture. We could all live quite well with what lurks in man’s heart as long as it is not acted upon. Actions matter.

The real question is not whether hatred exists but how we deal with it. Some ways are admirable: self-defense in the face of violence or understanding the root causes of the anger that resides in people, even in small groups of people, because dialogue does allow a healthy form of venting and can even lead to reconciliation and harmony.

What is especially perverse and loathsome is responding to unjustified violence with more unjustified violence. It is also pathetic and wins rioters no sympathy.  The violent lawless act of a rogue cop should not inspire violent lawlessness on the part of others. To give a pass to any individual or group  for committing mayhem is not the soft bigotry of low expectations; it is the hard core bigotry of no expectations. Marauding mobs do not inspire understanding or good will and make no one more kindly disposed to their “cause.” In fact, the opposite is true. The riots tend to reinforce the negative and harmful stereotypes that we are all trying to eradicate. Those who think their lives matter should act like their lives matter, and then they will matter. Jews have a long and lugubrious history of being murdered in cold blood but never have we sought to avenge those murders by killing or injuring or looting the property of innocent third parties. That injustice too cries out to the heavens.

How do seemingly normal people allow themselves to descend into such depravity? The Torah is instructive here as on all matters. The Sages taught us (Sotah 2a) that the portions describing the treatment of the Sotah (the straying wife) and the Nazir (who embraces additional restrictions) are juxtaposed to remind us that “whoever sees the Sotah in her degradation should abstain from wine.”

What is the connection? It is that a person who is so drawn to the spectacle of the Sotah that he goes to the Temple to watch it is already in a weakened spiritual state. His moral safeguards begin to fray as the crime of the Sotah, to him, seems less horrific and within the realm of the possible. And others join him too – and then all moral restraints are abandoned. Such a person has to regain his equilibrium by abstaining from wine that furthers clouds his conscience.

A normal individual will rarely do things while alone that he would do acting in concert with a supportive, protective group. The group – the mob – affords rationalizations and psychological safety that one does not have unaccompanied by others. That is why a German scientist, teacher, bureaucrat, lawyer or musician one day could become a murderous, malicious, ferocious Nazi the next. The group dynamic tends to dull our inhibitions. Hence the rioters, breaking into and ransacking Macy’s, Gucci, Microsoft and other fine stores. They weren’t seeking milk and bread. Their animalistic passions – what the Sages called the “nefesh habehami” that inheres in all of us – were unleashed. They are quelled in the short term when their energies dissipate (or the merchandise is gone) and in the long term only by teaching values, preaching to people that there is a divine moral code that constrains all of us, and that there is justice in the world – justice that is achievable but never through  torrents of injustice.

Apropos of the one who views the Sotah ordeal, all those who watched the cruel and evil murder of George Floyd cannot help but be diminished by it as human beings. It impairs our basic humanity. Those painful images will be difficult to uproot. But we respond to it by trying to become more human and more civilized, not less so.

The silver lining in this catastrophe is that the riots have driven the grim Corona virus from the news. Social distancing is a concern for fifteen people who want to daven together, not for several thousand people who want to protest and riot. Last week you could get arrested for opening a store; now you can’t get arrested for looting one.

This is how crazy the race wars have become. In California a “peaceful” young white protester smashed the windows of a vehicle that, unbeknownst to him, belonged to J.R. Smith, the black basketball player and former Knick. Smith chased down the perpetrator and beat the living daylights out of him. So: a white man protesting the death of a black man by demolishing the vehicle of a black man is then assaulted by the black man who is rightfully cheered for his efforts. Only in America.

This will end, until it starts again, but it will never really end. The nefesh habehami, once unleashed, is difficult to control.

It is going to be a long hot summer if cooler heads don’t prevail. The questions are: can America’s decline be reversed? And how?

On Liberty (With Apologies to John Stuart Mill)

    One of the most famous phrases in American history was drawn from the laws of Yovel, the Jubilee year: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Vayikra 25:10). Those stirring words are inscribed on the Liberty Bell (not all that it’s cracked up to be, but still worth a visit) housed in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.  The Bell actually predated the War of Independence but has been associated with the drive for American independence since at least the 1830’s.

     The Liberty Bell notwithstanding, the Torah’s choice of the word dror to signify “liberty” or “freedom” is unique. It is the only time the word appears in the Torah in the instant context, although Yirmiyahu uses it several times. We are more familiar with the word cherut to denote the same idea, even though cherut is not found in the Torah at all but is frequently cited in the context of the rabbinic dictum in  Avot (6:2): “Read not ‘engraved’ [charut on the luchot, tablets] but ‘freedom’ – cherut – as the only free person is the one who is engaged in Torah study.”  That is cherut, not dror. What does dror mean and how does it differ from cherut?

The Talmud refers many times (see, e.g., Shabbat 106b) to a tzipor dror, a “free” bird, a bird that is untamed, difficult to trap, and does not accept the mastery of another. Dror means liberty, but it is a liberty that does not tolerate any restrictions or controls. Rav Shamshon Rafael Hirsch, great philologist that he was, understood this tzipor dror as a bird “which only follows its natural trend, without altering it or being affected by human proximity.” It does its own thing, and that should ring a bell for all Americans.

As such, it really is an apt description of the American concept of liberty, even if Isaac Norris, the Speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly who selected it in 1751, had no such awareness of Hebrew nuance. From the “Don’t Tread on Me” symbol from the Revolutionary era to the public protests erupting across America these days because of the onerous restrictions necessitated (or not) by the Corona plague, Americans don’t like to be told what to do. The “pursuit of happiness” is individualized, subjective. One size does not fit all. The Founders, for the most part, extolled the virtues of individual liberty and small government – as big government (as we have seen) is usually hostile to individual liberty. Big government is founded upon and can only endure by encroaching on the right, freedoms and especially the money of its subjects.

The verse is most suitable for the Liberty Bell as it is for the Jubilee, in which all slaves were freed and ancestral property generally restored to the original owners. Each person returned to his or her natural state and landed property to its natural owner. Artificial barriers and human fetters were removed and life returned to a halcyon past.

Notice, though, how Jews speak not of dror, the undisciplined form of liberty that allows people to follow their consciences, muses and desires, but of cherut, a freedom that is “engraved,” carved on the tablets of the law, rooted in something external to us – the Divine Word. Freedom is the right to live with abandon or a reckless rejection of any inhibition but is rather embedded in our capacity to choose, to subdue our inclinations and harness our energies and resources to serve G-d. And the choices that are presented to us are not simply trivial flavors of life or varieties of experiences but have real world consequences. We choose the good or the opposite, life or the opposite, and so develop our souls for eternal life.

There are two concepts of freedom and each reflects the milieu most appropriate for it. The American concept reflects the ideal for a secular society; the heavy hand of the ruling class has historically been unkind to individual freedoms and the pursuit of happiness, and thus liberty remains the prevailing ethos and with good reason.

Conversely, the Torah view is the archetype for a religious nation. It promotes discipline and self-control, and mandates both behavior and values that bring a godly and sacred dimension to life. Such is only possible in a divinely-ordained system.

We must understand both systems and remember never transpose them. We must never let the American ethos pervade the Jewish moral standard – something that has been the bane of modern life and much of the last century. Only then can we remain faithful to our divine mandate and true to our mission.

The End Game

Is it too early to try to make sense of the Corona virus pandemic that has rocked the world? Trying to read God’s mind is always a hazardous and hubristic venture. We can never be certain of our conclusions.  On the other hand, we also risk losing the opportunity to evaluate where we are, what does God want from us, and further sink into the morass of materiality and happenstance.

One problem in this endeavor is that usually people try to interpret events in accordance with their conventional modes of thinking. And the ramifications of this crisis are multifaceted. It has shaken every societal and global institution. Americans have responded to the shutdown of society and infringements on personal freedom remarkably well, especially considering the disruption of family life and the collapse of the economy. The American economic juggernaut has ground to a halt. American politics, unpredictable for years, has descended into utter nebulousness.

The world has been brought closer in one sense, but in other ways remains the same. No place on the globe has been immune from the spread of disease; shared suffering has engendered some international cooperation. But it has also exposed some countries, such as China, as both victims and villains in this drama. The game of power politics and the desire for strategic advantage for some countries over others continue unabated.

All this misses the real point. Again, people are prone to seeing the world in a new situation as they have in prior situations. From a Jewish perspective, there are people who will look at any event and interpret it as a call for increased Torah study. Others perceive this plague as a divine mandate to do more acts of chesed, and in the current crisis opportunities abound. Aliya activists see the potential, with good cause, for a dramatic increase in Aliya. Still others will look at our closed shuls and conclude that God has not been happy with our communal prayer, and so has temporarily stripped us of it. And the Messianists see this, as they see everything, as an indication that Moshiach is coming soon.

All of that might be true and I hope they are true but I think they are reading into the situation more than simply interpreting the facts on the ground. And what are those facts? It is the one overpowering reality that mankind struggles with and has still not accepted: the reality of G-d’s existence and His mastery over the world. It is a time for teshuva, not just in the classic sense of repentance but in its literal sense of a “return,” a return to an awareness of G-d.

Even in nations that recognize God’s existence, He has been compartmentalized. G-d is “assigned” to a panoply of rituals, houses of worship, lifecycle events (especially tragic ones), and pious, platitudinous invocations often from impious people who enjoy platitudes. But the reality of His might, His dominance, and especially His morality is widely ignored. Society celebrates “the idols of the nations are silver and gold, the works of the hands of man” (Tehillim 135:15). The explicit intent of government officials is not to introspect on the broader meaning of life, which should be easier in an environment devoid of the mind-numbing, soul-crushing entertainment industry, but rather to get the economy going and have people dive right back into the crass consumerism that for many is the purpose of life and the source of their contentment and meaning. Certainly, a prosperous economy is critical to a functioning polity – but only because it then facilitates the more consequential pursuits of life. It should be the means to an end and not the end goal itself. When there are no or few consequential pursuits, then we wrongly admire those who have power and influence, and generally set the tone for the zeitgeist.

Who are the powerful? One might suggest the politicians, the generals, the tycoons, the scientists, the doctors, the clergymen and others. They are the ones who claim to have the answers for everything and promise us the fulfillment of our life’s ambitions – as long as we subscribe to their assumptions. And now we see the limits of their powers and how their answers are really not answers at all.

Of course no one saw this coming. Anyone (many do, in fact) can irrefutably predict an impending calamity because until it happens it is always impending. I can’t criticize any person for failing to anticipate something unprecedented; that is as unfair as it is illogical. But the responses to the disaster are illuminating in that they spotlight the wide chasm between our egos and our inadequacies.

The approaches of some rabbis to this catastrophe have been spot on, while others have been deeply flawed. The doctors are trying heroically to save lives, as are the scientists in the frantic research. There is no explanation why one person succumbs and another survives, why one man is afflicted and another woman is unaffected, why the elderly are most vulnerable and the young almost unscathed. There are theories – but the theories ultimately testify to how little we know. Hundreds of scientific papers from across the world have been published in the last six weeks alone with potential cures or treatments. That indicates not just their creativity and their untiring efforts but also their limitations. When there are many answers it means there is no one, real answer. Thus we are treated to the daily spectacle of “this drug works” and “no it doesn’t!” “We are days or months away from a vaccine!” followed by “No, you’re not,” with the sincere, mercenary and political motivations all jumbled. And when someone finds the answer to this disease, who can say that this won’t be followed by other medical challenges which are similarly confounding?

Those who place their faith in science – a staple of secular mankind since the Enlightenment – should re-evaluate, to say the least. (I don’t know anyone who has faith in politicians.) Simple questions – the efficacy of certain drugs, the existence of herd immunity for Corona virus or any immunity at all for those recovered – cannot be answered, are answered in the alternative, or will only be answered after the fact. We ask rhetorically in the daily Shacharit: “Are not all the mighty like nothing before You, men of renown as if they never were, the wise as if devoid of knowledge (science?), and men of understanding as if devoid of intelligence?”

It is indeed so, as jarring as it sounds and as humbling it is to the self-image of modern man. We try, we often succeed, we use our G-d-given intelligence to try to solve the mysteries of the universe and properly so – but “all is a fleeting breath,” a particularly evocative metaphor in these troubled times.

The wealthy – the group that is most idolized in a materialistic world – have seen the ground on which they walk shaken. The world economy is crumbling, and the markets are volatile. For sure, they are better able to absorb the blow than are the middle class or the poor. Pity those whose businesses will fail or are unemployed from companies that will not reopen. It was unthinkable even two months ago that supermarket shelves in the United States would be empty and that people would be lining up by the thousands to receive boxes of food from local authorities.

Everyone is groping in the dark for answers and perhaps the message is to look up. The atheist and vulgar materialist will find their explanations in nature and the like. They will be unrepentant until the end. They will continue to impose their amorality (often, immorality) on the world under the guise of rights, ethics, kindness and even morality but all “the works of the hands of man.”

Rambam (Hilchot Taanit, Chapter 1) writes that “when troubles, such as famine, a plague, or locusts befall a community, we are to cry out to G-d… It is one of the ways of repentance… And those who do not cry out but conclude that this is just ‘the way of the world and these tribulations are mere coincidence,’ this is nothing but cruelty that causes them to cling to their evil ways and it only invites more suffering.”

Why is this “cruelty”? Because cruelty (achzari’ut) is the feeling that “I am a stranger (a zar) to all this hardship. It has nothing to do with me. It is all coincidence.” Even an earth shaken to its core will not dislodge the unbeliever or the materialist from his world view; that too is an ordeal, of a different sort. Nevertheless, it seems that the scourge is having some positive effect. Last week, a Pew survey indicated that more than 25% of Americans report that they are praying more than they did before the crisis. If it is sustained, along with the humility engendered by this blunt encounter with our evident vulnerabilities, a vital transformation in society will have begun.

The times demand a reassessment of priorities and life’s purposes, a return to G-d as the Source of all life and not as a cliché, not as an image that we trot before our mind’s eye during periods of stress only to relegate Him to some corner (large or small, depending on the person) of our world in more normal periods. We know that Moshiach will arrive amid some global cataclysm, when mankind concludes that nature, science, wealth, or power do not have the solutions to what ails us. That despair forces us to look away from ourselves, to “lift our eyes on high and discern Who created all of these” (Yeshayahu 26:26). The sooner we do that, the sooner we will see an end to human suffering and malaise, and behold the dawn of the era of redemption.

 

Ask the Rabbi, Part 4

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the fourth selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

 

Should a person be comfortable or uncomfortable davening in an airport or on an airplane?  And should he act conspicuously or inconspicuously?

Setting aside security considerations, our mandate as Jews is quite straightforward and is presented to us at the very beginning of the Shulchan Aruch (1:1). The Rema states that “one should not be embarrassed in front of people who (might) ridicule his divine service.” After all, what do we have to be ashamed of – that the Creator and Master of the Universe has called upon us to serve Him? There could be no greater honor.

Of course, there are practical considerations to be weighed as one must strive not to be unduly provocative to other people. Davening on an airplane often inconveniences other passengers. Congestion in the galleys or aisles is so disruptive that many modern day poskim have recommended that people on airplanes daven alone and not in a minyan, especially where provisions for group tefila are not made. Even in the airport, davening in the middle of crowds of quizzical onlookers is not conducive to the kavanah required for tefila. But airports have plenty of semi-private spaces (some even have designated prayer rooms without overt religious symbols or icons) that are amenable to prayer.

I have frequently davened in airports without incident. Decades ago, I was forced to make an unscheduled stop in Düsseldorf, Germany – my first time in that country. Without any options, I davened with talit and tefilin in a corner of the waiting area, with numerous passersby stopping to glance or gaze at this unusual spectacle. I thought to myself at the time: “Good, let Germans see a Jew wearing talit and tefillin on their soil.” And I survived. The rest of the world can only benefit from the presence of proud, fearless Jews. So can we.

 

Is it appropriate to analyze one’s parents? 

Much depends on what is meant by “analyze.” Certainly, sitting in judgment of one’s parents is forbidden. We are mandated not only to honor (kibud) but also to revere (mora) our parents. Analyzing one’s parents, and their virtues or vices as parents or as individuals, would violate the latter prohibition. And this applies even if parents act abusively. As the Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) relates, a story codified by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 240:3), “if a child is wearing expensive clothing and sitting among noblemen, and one’s father or mother tears his clothing, strikes him in the head and spits in his face, the child cannot embarrass them but must remain silent, fearing the King of Kings who commanded him so.”

Admittedly that is an extreme case but the point is clear: scrutinizing, critiquing or rebuking our parents is generally forbidden.

However, if a parent torments or traumatizes a child to the point of psychological dysfunction, it would certainly be permissible, even therapeutically indispensable, to discuss one’s upbringing in a counseling setting. Discussion of parents and parenting is a staple of certain types of therapy. But it should be done, wherever possible, with respect and reverence, and eschewing the tendency to blame all of one’s troubles on other people. Indeed, recognizing that no one is perfect can even engender the assumption of personal responsibility for one’s own fate in life, and that can lead to healthy outcomes.

If “analyzing” parents means better understanding their decisions in order for the child to learn parenting skills, then that is proper as well. After all, as a wise Rav once said,   “G-d eventually takes revenge on children by  making them parents.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey and author of four books.

Ask the Rabbi, Part 3

Last year, I was invited to be part of a panel of rabbis to submit answers to questions posed by the editor of the Jewish Press. The column appears bi-weekly, and I take this opportunity to present my approach to the questions raised.  Each question is fascinating in its own right, as are the variety of answers proffered.  All the answers can be viewed at Jewishpress.com.

Here is the third selection with my take on these issues    – RSP

 

Is it proper to panic over the corona virus epidemic?

 It is hard not to panic since the response and countermeasures have been exactly what would have been prescribed had we also been told to panic, and to panic quickly! But, as the Beach Boys once sang, “cool heads and warm hearts” should govern our reaction.

This is because panic leads to irrational thinking and impetuous moves that tend to exacerbate the problem. Both the WHO and Johns Hopkins have reported that most people who are in the presence of the infected will not become infected themselves (as contagious as the virus is) and 80% of the infected will have “no or mild symptoms” of the virus, which will in any event pass after a few days. Those with underlying medical conditions that compromise their health are the most vulnerable and they should be extra-cautious in their public interactions. But they too need not panic.

 

Above all we are a nation that is grounded in its faith in G-d. We are only asked to do our hishtadlut – our very best and considered efforts to avoid contamination and transmission – and trust in G-d’s infinite compassion. We live in a world with ubiquitous dangers – from terror to sudden illness to accidents. We always rely on He who is “shomer peta’im” (Tehillim 116:6), who “preserves the simple” from unknown hazards in ways that we do not fully recognize or appreciate.

 

We should not minimize the crisis nor be cavalier in our response. We should not think that any of us are immune from illness and therefore exempt from any restrictions on our lives. But we should apply our reason and faith to this situation and all others, follow the guidelines of the officials and rabbis, and know that in a short time, gam zu yaavor – this too shall pass.

  

Is it appropriate to look for, and publicize, gematrias and Torah codes related to the current Coronavirus pandemic?

Well, it certainly gives people with a lot of time on their hands something to do.

For sure, hafoch ba vahafoch ba d’chola ba. “Turn and turn in it [Torah] because everything is in it” (Avot 5:22). The Torah is the repository of G-d’s wisdom and thus it is unsurprising that it is a fount of information and insight on all matters. Searching for allusions in the Torah to all events – from dire crises to birthdays – has been a Jewish parlor game since ancient times.

Nevertheless, we should realize the limitations of the exercise and its propriety. Obviously, the data can easily be manipulated to produce the desired result; often, the deductions are strained and the sources of limited value. If the point is to show that G-d is Master of the Universe then undoubtedly that engenders the humility in mankind that is too often lacking today. However, if the subtext is that because we have deciphered these references we therefore have precise knowledge as to how G-d runs His world, then that conclusion is incorrect, troubling and spiritually self-defeating. It is the antithesis of what we should be learning from this calamity.

Ultimately, the pursuit of hints and codes reflects the quest for security in an insecure time, as if we should not feel vulnerable because it was all so predictable to “insiders.” That too is an unhelpful approach.

It would have been helpful – for this and predictions of other catastrophes and wonders – if the purveyors of this information had warned us of the coming catastrophe last December rather than last week or last month. Then we could have avoided much spiritual, physical, emotional and financial hardship. But somehow that never happens. It smacks too much, therefore, of the chacham l’achar ma’aseh – the “genius after the fact” – syndrome.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey and author of “The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility.”

 

Not Day, Not Night

Towards the end of the hagada, in the piyut that catalogs the momentous events that have occurred in our history at midnight (“Vayehi bachatzi halailah”), we ask Hashem to “bring near the day that is neither day nor night.” It sounds like a contradiction in terms – how can there be a day that is not a day or a night? It might be twilight – but that is not a “day,” that is a very brief period of time.

And then that passage ends by contradicting even that: “Illuminate the darkness of night with the light of day.” So which is it? Do we want the darkness brightened – or do we want the day that is neither day nor night?

The piyut is discussing the Messianic era, and this phrase is based on a recurrent refrain in Tanach. Zechariah (14:7) prophesied of the time when “there will be a day known to Hashem – not day or night, but towards evening there will be light.” And right before (14:6) he said “on that day, there will not be a bright light or a dim light.”

And note something else as well. The critical verse that defines the night of the seder contains what seems like an error. The key mitzvah of the seder is “you will tell your child on that day, that this is why G-d took us out of Egypt” (Sh’mot 13:8). But, in fact, we don’t tell our child on that day but rather on that night. Indeed, it would seem then, that the night of the seder is referred to as that day. Why is that?

Night, as we know, is always symbolic of exile – darkness, murkiness, confusion, a lack of clarity. At night, man is inactive – and even alarmed because we are exposed to the elements, to nature, even to human marauders. Night reflects the mists of the moment, when our world is perplexing, uncertain, unclear and more than a little frightening. Day is clarity, optimism, knowledge and redemption. On that day, the Torah says, G-d redeemed us. The Red Sea split – “And G-d saved Israel on that day from the hands of Egypt” (Sh’mot 14:30).

What Zechariah taught us is far-reaching in its significance. The era before the redemption is a time of “not day or night.” There are so many different, confounding and contradictory events and circumstances. On one hand, there is affluence, technological development, great sophistication – and yet we are suddenly humbled by plagues and illnesses and by the insecurity that surrounds us. Is it “day” now for the world – or is it “night”?

Indeed, it is exactly what was prophesied: “It is neither day nor night.” The Baal HaMetzudot commented that in that era “Israel will be perplexed, not knowing whether events are the prelude to salvation or destruction.”

The night of the seder and Pesach itself, the Zohar writes (Parshat Bo) is a time when “the night is as bright as the longest days of summer.” It is the moment of clarity in the world, when Hashem’s mighty hand is revealed, and all becomes clear. The world can be in darkness, but “for the children of Israel there was light in their dwelling places. The sun can set, but still “And on that day you shall relate to your children” of the miraculous exodus from Egypt.

When Hashem is visible and His influence is palpable and undeniable – like in Egypt – that is the time when “towards evening it will be light.” We are waiting for the divine light to be as it was when the world was created. On Pesach we re-experience the Exodus when there were no doubts or uncertainty in the world – only the overpowering reality of Hashem’s presence.

As that day nears – the day that is neither day nor night – Pesach both tantalizes us with the range of possibilities, and challenges us to bring them closer, hasten their arrival, and actualize them in the real world. Our day is one in which, if we open our eyes even a little, the darkness can and will dissipate and we will see the light, and merit the grandeur of the coming redemption.

May Hashem extend His protective hand around His people, send healing to the ill and consolation to the bereaved, end this scourge, and usher in the future of light and brightness and joy, for our community and all of Israel.

On Balance

Well, the world has certainly changed, and in a hurry.

It wasn’t that long ago that we were overwhelmed with a variety of crises – the rise in violent attacks against Jews in America and Europe; the opioid epidemic that was sweeping the nation and devastating large swaths of the country; and our vaping teenagers,  a plague that necessitated government investigations, crackdowns and restrictions. These troubles dominated our thinking before we had ever heard the term “social distancing.” That doesn’t even mention the omnipresent threat of global warming that was to end the planet in a decade or so unless, among other things, single-use plastic bags was banned from all stores. All that seems not months but years ago, and all it took to drive them from the headlines was a once-in-a-century pandemic.

For all those who claim to have seen the corona virus coming, I wish they would have told me right before. Of course no one knew, even if there are always people predicting catastrophes. The problem is that there are always more people predicting catastrophes than there are catastrophes. When the one person is right, he is lauded for his genius and prescience. When the multitudes are wrong, no one pays attention to them (remember the looking disaster of Y2K?). It reminded me of the old economists’ joke, that economists have accurately predicted twelve out of the last five recessions. That’s about right.

Governments’ response, both federal and state, will be the subject of much deliberation and recrimination, little of it objective or honest. There is a reason why there is no template for dealing with the unprecedented; that is because it is unprecedented. To have too few ventilators available in such a disaster is a criticism that would be warranted only if I told you that next year hundreds of thousands of dialysis machines will be needed, so spend the money now, and suffer the consequences. It is simply unpredictable, and that calls for emergency measures. Every politician would love to repair the bridge the day before it collapses. To do it too early seems like a waste of money, too late is too late. Sadly, it is usually difficult to time it so precisely. But the outsourcing of pharmaceutical production to China is a national travesty, one born of the multiple regulations and union requirements that render manufacturing in America less than cost effective. That has to be solved because it is unhealthy (both literally and figuratively) to be dependent for our vital medicines on the Chinese whose way of life, of doing business, of governance, and moral notions so differ from ours.

Of more interest is the religious response. The good news is that the Jewish community for the most part adapted quite well to the most Draconian restrictions imaginable. To me it is unthinkable to have spent a month outside of shul, davening alone. For American Jews, whose spiritual lives are often centered on the shul, to be robbed of that daily experience could be crushing, if not for the fact that we are historically a nation of adapters. The believing Jew sees G-d’s hand in everything. In a profound way, the destruction of the Bet Hamikdash deprived of the opportunity to fulfill many mitzvot. We therefore serve G-d not by building private altars but by abstaining from certain otherwise obligatory acts. It is the same in the current environment; our divine service is characterized by what we cannot do even if we want to do it. Fortunately, our Sages anticipated this predicament: “Rav Assi said: ‘Even if a person thought to perform a mitzvah but was unable to do so due to exigent circumstances, Scripture construes it as if he performed it’” (Kiddushin 40a). The sense of loss and feeling of dislocation is great but that is where we are. The mitzvah of saving lives and avoiding harm to oneself or others takes precedence over public prayer and learning.

Not every Jewish community was quick to get with the program with the resultant increase in illness, death and suffering in those communities both in Israel and in America. Some held out for a few days, some a few weeks, and I suppose there are still some recalcitrants even today. One rabbi claimed that only G-d would tell him when to close his shul (I assume he merited a divine communication, because he was closed the next day.) Another rabbi quoted that Talmudic statement (Shabbat 119b) that “the world only endures because of the breath of children studying Torah” – so the closing of yeshivot endangers us rather than protects us. Still another decried the loss of pubic prayer, since “the world exists due to the kedusha in U’va l’tzion and the response in Kaddish after public Torah learning” (Sotah 49a).

Those are all true statements, of course, but certainly homiletical, and neither will prevail in halachic discourse over the requisites of pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives. For sure, their emotions and desires were in a holy place, but why did they not comply and continue to endanger their communities?

I found it fascinating that a similar dynamic played out among Catholics. The Wall Street Journal reported on this last week (April 6) and the headline says it all: “As Coronavirus Halts Masses, Conservative Catholics Push Back.” These Catholics argued that “believers need the church now more than ever.” Cardinal Burke opined that just as people need food and medicine and take care not to spread the virus in the process, “so also we must be able to pray in our churches and chapels…and engage in acts of public prayer and devotion.” Rusty Reno, the noted Catholic writer, stated that “in a time of pandemic – a time when Satan whips up in us all fears of isolation, abandonment and death, churches must not join the stampede of fear.”

It is impossible to know whether here Catholics followed the Jews, Jews followed the Catholics or both came to their conclusions on their own. But it is an intriguing question: why is that (for lack of a better term) those religious groups who self-define as the most “conservative,” or “traditional,” or “fundamentalist,” or “ultra…” of one sort or another, insisted on maintaining spiritual business as usual despite the dangers extant – even as the rest of the society effectively shut down?

There are many possible answers (a commitment that exceeds that of others, not being one of them) but here I suggest two, one general and one specific.

The first is the sheer magnitude of the disruption to our lives that was not only unforeseen but also still is, in a literal sense, incredible. It is simply beyond belief, something that the entire planet is experiencing that no one had ever experienced before –a global pandemic that necessitates the shutdown of economies and social institutions. It is easy to dismiss such a calamity as real – even after its effects are upon us. There lurks in the mind the suspicion that “this can’t really be happening.” If so, finding comfort and refuge in our normal spiritual lives is reassuring and even more imperative notwithstanding the “dangers” that are not fully internalized.

The second speaks to us, as I cannot address the Catholic claims. Halacha is a very balanced and delicate ecosystem. For sure, there is a scale of hierarchies as there are gradations of holiness and importance in the mitzvot. The more “fundamentalist” a group is, the more likely they are to attach greater significance to facets of Torah that are less compelling (clothing and beards come to mind). But they can also lose their sense of balance and true priorities when they take one mitzvah and see it as the end-all and be-all. In so doing, they distort the ecosystem, as they also do, for example, by taking Agadic statements designed to teach us values and employing them to draw halachic conclusions, a profound methodological error.

Psak halacha (a conclusive determination of authorized practice) involves much more than just deciding that a particular mitzvah “to me or my group” is more important than any others. It involves reckoning with ancillary values (hefsed merubeh, kavod habriyot, etc.) that will play a significant role in the final analysis even if their applications involve some subjectivity. Failure to account for ancillary values – or exaggerating the importance of one particular mitzvah – will invariably lead to distortion in the final conclusion. Hence the reluctance to comply with the current societal mandates for a long time (in some places). Their yearning and intentions were as admirable as their conclusions were misguided and deadly. Thus it turns out that they were not more frum but less frum than they hoped to be. That is the price for a misconstruction of halacha but may Hashem help us all!

People often think that the greatest value in the Torah is pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life, and who is to argue with that? It is certainly a supreme value and dominates our thinking here. In truth, though, it is not the highest value, because even the saving of a life is superseded by the three cardinal sins each of which mandates martyrdom instead of violation.

That makes fidelity to G-d’s will, or better said, service of G-d in every situation we confront in life, the highest value. That divine service is ordinarily manifested in the performance of many mitzvot like Torah study, public prayer and the like. It requires the building and maintenance of communities dedicated to joint practices and shared values. If the times now demand a temporary retrenchment in that type of divine service, then we should grieve, realize what we are missing, and when the gates are reopened surge forward with renewed vigor and appreciation for the spiritual beauties of our lives.

Just like after the churban, sometimes G-d demands service through abstention in some spheres (public prayer) and intensification in other spheres (acts of kindness).

May He soon end this scourge, bring healing to the afflicted and comfort to the bereaved, and send His righteous Moshiach to redeem His world.