Author’s Note: This article was written for the May, 2020 issue of The Scroll.
One thing about being a Torah learning Jew: you learn about the history of our people and about our trials and tribulations. Not everyone goes beyond the Tanakh and Talmud but I decided to, many years ago, and have read extensively on many subjects regarding our history, with many more topics on my list of areas to explore. One thing you learn quickly, though, is that we are no strangers to tragedy. We have been through wars, pogroms, a holocaust, epidemics, pandemics, you name it. We have been through it and come through the other side.
There is one thing, though, that they do not tell you when you read the books, watch the documentaries and listen to the lectures: learning about something and living through it are two very different things. I have always known, on an intellectual level, that no amount of learning about the holocaust could bring even the slightest hint of an understanding of what living through it was like. One survivor commented to me about the movie “Schindler’s List” that it was the best portrayal he had seen, but it was not 1% of what reality was. I understood what he said but, in a more important way, I had no clue.
Even with today’s pandemic raging throughout the world, I cannot imagine what it was like to live during the flu pandemic of 1918 where 50 million people died. It’s a different age. Medicine and technology are different. We have more information than they did. One could argue we have too much information and too little of it accurate but that is a topic for another day. Despite my lack of understanding of what they went through, I can say this: I think I have a little bit better of an appreciation for it.
One of the consequences of being in quarantine and isolation, though, is that you have too much time to think. I have kept a close eye on developments with the pandemic, of course, but also of the tragedies that occur around us every day. Not a day goes by that my phone does not ring with the death of one or another member of the Jewish community. Some are people I know. Some are community Rabbis and leaders. And some from my family, both close family and my extended family at Shaarey Israel. It has been difficult some days to be able to see beyond the darkness and perceive the light.
As I write this, I have a nephew sitting Shiva for his father, a Mechutan sitting shiva for his mother and a dear friend, an adopted brother really, about to bury his son. All of this occurred within the last 10 days or so. That does not include the condolence calls to friends within my home community in Passaic or to members of Shaarey Israel. It has been a very trying time.
I came to a decision last night. I decided I was not going to let the darkness win. It is there, and it will probably be there for too much longer, but I have a choice as to how I am going to deal with it. I thought long and hard and I came to a few, simple, conclusions.
First, I believe in G-d. Not only that he exists but, as the Talmud quotes Rabbi Akiva as saying, “All that Hashem does, he does for good.” It is impossible to see the good in what is going on around us right now but our lack of perception does not mean that it is not there. Who knows what Hashem has planned and how the events of today will affect the course of the world in the future? I have stated before that I believe that the creation of the State of Israel, that the UN voted to allow the Jewish people a state, was a direct result of the holocaust. I do not say that is a justification for six million dead, I only say that I believe that it was the global shock over the holocaust that caused a mere nanosecond of compassion for the Jewish people and resulted in the historic UN vote on partition of the mandate that led to the declaration of the state.
Who knows what seeds are being planted while this virus rages? What new cures or medical technology may be created as a result that could save millions? What new political awareness might come of this? I could speculate all day but the fact is I have no clue where the light in this darkness is. But, that does not stop me from knowing that it exists. It exists and, in G-d’s own time, he will make it known to us.
For now, the question is simple: How do we navigate these waters and stay healthy, both physically and emotionally, during this time. Well, I will not address the physical. We all know about social distancing, hygiene and the like. But emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, that I think I can make a suggestion about. You see, when I have a headache, I take Tylenol. That’s my prescribed treatment for that ailment. When someone is in emotional pain, I believe that love and caring are the prescription. Put even more simply: we can get through this emotionally, psychologically and spiritually, by giving of ourselves to others. By making that extra phone call, video chat, facebook message or post, we perhaps can try to help bring some light to the darkness that surrounds. Love trumps pain and we have to cultivate love by the bushel and share it. A trouble shared is a trouble halved: a joy shared is a joy doubled. Now, more than ever, we need to take the time to reach those of us for whom the darkness is a palpable, physical thing. We cannot force others to see the light but, by offering of ourselves, we give them more of an opportunity to become aware of it. Additionally, when we share our love with others, we don’t use it up: we increase it.
I hope you all know that when we have Shabbat or Yom Tov services, the services are preceded by a Talmud learning group that meets one hour before services. We have been doing this for years. When we had to suspend services due to the pandemic, we began leaning in the evening using Zoom. These get-togethers, whether in person or virtual, are not only intellectual exercises: it is a group of people sharing their time with one another and it is almost like a family get together. We talk, laugh, learn, argue and, in general, have a great time. Just recently, we finished the tractate of Rosh Hashana and have started a new one, Taanis. If you would like to join us via Zoom, just pop me an email. Give me your cell number (and install WhatsApp on your phone if you don’t have it) and I will add you to our chat list and you will be welcome.
Until we see each other again in person, please stay safe and well. Know that our love goes out to you. Reach out to us if you need… trust me when I tell you you will not be a burden: that’s why Hashem has placed us on this earth.