Note: This appeared in the January 2021 issue of The Scroll.
Living a life that is guided by Torah has many rules. A friend of mine just sent me a video of Ashley Blaker, an orthodox comedian, on how many rules we follow and what it might look like if Christmas were a Yom Tov. It’s bloody brilliant (Blaker is British so it has to be “bloody” brilliant).
I have said many times that Hashem gave us the Mitzvot in the Torah to help us rise above our baser instincts. It is adherence to Torah and its values that truly fix the world (the true meaning of the term Tikun Olam). In these brief messages that I pen each month, I always try to discuss a Torah value as I see it and how it applies to us.
If one wishes to, we can categorize these values in many different ways. The simplest categorization breaks the Mitzvot into two: Bein Adam Lamakom (between man and G-d) and Bein Adam Lachaveiro (between people). Therefore, for example, when observing the Mitzvot of Kashrut, one is performing a Mitzvah that goes into the first category. When refusing to speak Lashon Hara (evil speech), one is performing a Mitzvah that can arguably be placed in the latter category.
Of the two, Hashem valus how we treat each other more highly than how we treat Him. How do I know this? From the stories in the second Parsha in the Torah. The second Parsha begins with the story of Noah when the world was destroyed because “The earth became corrupt before G-d; the earth was filled with violence.” (Gen 6:11) In other words, people did not behave properly with each other. Later on in the Parsha, we read the story of the Tower of Babel when the world was united and tried to war with G-d. In this case, the people were together and the sin was against G-d. Their punishment was less severe. They were not killed, their languages were changed and they could not communicate causing them to disperse. Two stories with totally different endings, the difference between the two being how people treated each other.
To live a life of Torah values involves much more than learning rules and just following them. It involves thinking and acting as Torah values would have us act.
This leads to many different Talmudic dicta from our sages. One such dictum comes from the Tractate of Pesachim which discusses the laws of Passover. When the Temple stood, it was a universal truth that you could not work after midday on Erev Pesach because that is when the Passover sacrifice was brought and when one brings a sacrifice it is like Yom Tov for them. The question was: what about the first half of the day? In this case, some places had the custom to work and some did not.
Says the Mishna (Pesachim 4:1):
In a place where it is the custom to do work on the eve of Pesach until midday one may do work; where it is the custom not to do work, one may not do work. He who goes from a place where they work to a place where they do not work, or from a place where they do not work to a place where they do work, they place upon him the restrictions of the place from where he departed and the restrictions of the place to where he has gone. And a man must not act differently [from local custom] on account of the quarrels [which would ensue].
The last phrase of the Mishna is key. In Hebrew, the phrase is: Al Yeshane Mipnei Hamachloket. When you are in a place that has a particular way of behaving, don’t deviate because it will upset people needlessly. No, conformity is not absolute. For example, when I am in the office I wear my Kippa even though that is not the general norm at work. But, I know people who take their Kippot off at work and they have upon whom to rely when they do. If someone were to tell me to eat something that isn’t kosher because I have to be part of the group, I would politely decline. However, we can conform most of the time and avoid needless argument. The Mishna is telling us to avoid conflict when we can.
During the COVID-19 pandemic we have seen many instances of people who refuse to conform for one reason or another. How many videos are there on YouTube showing people in stores who refuse to wear a mask despite all the warnings from just about every health department in the world that mask wearing is necessary during this pandemic? How many of those videos show a violent end to the incident? More than I like to think about.
Now, let’s analyze this for a second. When you are at home you can do as you please. But, when someone goes to a store where everyone is wearing a mask, what does it cost you to wear a mask? And no, I am not referring to people who cannot wear a mask because of a health condition.
Those of you who know me, know that I believe strongly in personal freedom. But, common sense is also key. I know there are people out there who believe that they are fighting G-d’s own fight in refusing to wear a mask because a mask mandate is unconstitutional and a violation of their freedoms. I might agree with them in ordinary times, but not now. People are afraid of this virus and have enough to deal with. We are entitled to our freedom and we must never blithely give it away. But, we also have to use common sense and right now is not the time to have this fight.
Within the walls of our congregation, the same rules have to apply. Shaarey Israel is almost unique in the fact that we have in-person services. Outside of the strictly orthodox community, I know of no other congregation that is doing what we are. It is critical that we follow all the standards we, as a congregation, have adopted. (It is my understanding that, for the most part, we have been following the rules for COVID services promulgated by the Rabbinical Council of Bergen County). The congregation has invested a great deal of money and effort in upgrading our HVAC systems with enhanced filtration and microbial reduction systems to enhance the safety of our attending congregants.
I have said many times that you are Shaarey Israel. Our congregation doesn’t exist without the spirit you bring within its walls. I personally miss a filled shule so much it hurts. How I crave the Kiddush after service when we have a chance to talk, laugh, catch up and even argue over one point or another. But it is not meant to be at this moment. For now, any “catching up” must happen outside the building in the open air. Within the building, we have to remain socially distant and masked. I despise it, but it is what we have to do.
Al Yeshane Mipnei Hamachloket.