A Spiritual Response to the Coronavirus

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In the 1960’s, Reb Shlomo Carlebach would travel to the former Soviet Union to distribute Tefilin, Mezuzot, Yarmulkes and other religious items forbidden in Russia at the time. At the end of one of his trips, as Reb Shlomo was packing his bags in his Moscow hotel room, he heard a knock at the door.

Reb Shlomo saw it was a little boy knocking and so he let him in.  The boy looks up at Reb Shlomo and asks: “Do you know where I can find Rabbi Carlebach?” “That’s me, I’m Rabbi Carlebach but please call me Shlomo – what can I do for you?” he asked. “I was told you have Tefilin,” the boy answers. Reb Shlomo sadly responds: “I’m so sorry, but I’m at the end of my trip and I gave away my last pair of Tefilin.”

The boy became very sad. He looked down at the ground and then looked back up to Reb Shlomo and with a tear in his eye asked: “In a few weeks I’m going to be a Bar-Mitzvah. How can I have a Bar-Mitzvah without Tefilin?” Reb Shlomo went into his suitcase and pulled out a pair of Tefilin which looked old and worn. He knelt down beside the boy and with the Tefilin in his hand told the boy: “These Tefilin belonged to my grandfather, a great Rabbi in Germany. They were also worn by my father in the concentration camps and I have worn them every day since I was a Bar Mitzvah. Promise me you’ll use them and they’re yours.” The boy smiled and promised he would wear them every day.

As the boy proceeded to leave, he turned around and asked: “Wait, Shlomo, do you have an extra Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo answered: “I must have given away hundreds of Yarmulkes, but I have none left.” The boy looked up and asked: “How can I wear my Tefilin without a Yarmulke?” Reb Shlomo took off his own Yarmulke and handed it to the child and the boy left.

What compels someone to part with something so important, so sentimental and valuable for a complete stranger?

In this week’s parsha, Parshat Ki Tissa we read about the very dramatic incident of Chayt Ha’aygel, the sin of the Golden Calf.  After the sin takes place and all those involved are punished, Moshe turns to the rest of the Jewish community, to the majority of the community who did not participate in the sin and says something strange: Atem chatasem chateah gedolah -“you have committed a great transgression,” v’atah e’eleh el Hashem – “and now I’ll go up to God,” ulai achpera b’ad chatatchem- “maybe He (Hashem) will forgive you for your sin.”

To what sin is Moshe referring? The Jews who committed the serious sin of worshipping the Golden Calf had already been punished! Moshe was addressing the rest of the community that had not sinned, so to what sin was Moshe referring?

My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter suggested it was for the sin of not doing anything. For the sin of remaining indifferent, of being idle. Sure, the majority of the Jews did not engage in the sin of the Golden Calf, but they also failed to prevent their fellow brothers from doing so. The Torah challenges us: Lo Ta’amud Al Dam Re’echa – “don’t stand by idly by thy brother’s blood.” Our Sages teach: Kol Yisrael Areivim Ze Laze– “all Jews are responsible one for the next” and so even though only a small percentage of the people actually engaged in the sin, the entire Jewish community was held responsible, because we are all connected.

Whether it’s for the good or for the bad, we’re seen as one and we even feel as one. I remember years ago, before the terrible crash of the Columbia Space Shuttle, the Jewish community felt so proud that one of the astronauts aboard was a Jew. The Jewish community was even prouder when this Jewish astronaut, Colonel Ramon, decided to eat kosher food in space and bring up a Torah Scroll with him from a concentration camp. It made us all feel proud, not only because it reflected well on us as a people, but also because we are all interconnected. Similarly, how embarrassed did we feel, also years ago, when Bernie Madoff, another fellow Jew was taken off to prison for cheating so many people out of so much money? We felt that too because we have this connection.

The great Radvaz compared the entire Jewish people to the body of a single individual. He said that just like when one part of the body is in pain, the entire body is affected, so too each Jew feels the pain or the joy of another Jew, because we are all but different parts of the same organism. In the Midrash, the great rabbi, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, compared the Jewish people to the passengers of a huge ship that is beginning to sink. The passengers and crewman are scurrying about, desperately trying to find the cause of the sinking ship. They look everywhere until they come across one locked cabin with water gushing out from underneath the door. The crewman kicked open the door and lo and behold there’s this one guy digging away, drilling a huge hole in the floor of his cabin and the water is gushing through.  The passengers shout at the man: “What are you doing?” The man responds: “What’s the problem? I’m just drilling a hole in my cabin! It’s my cabin after all, I paid for it!”

We are all in the same boat. What affects one person affects us all. The coronavirus operates in the very same way. Acting responsibly, following the Health Department’s rules against congregating publicly (which is why we are not holding services this Shabbat), is not only necessary to keeping ourselves safe. It is imperative to help contain the virus for everyone. The Jewish teaching of areivus, the responsibility of one person to the next, demands such a response. Human life is paramount and it is only for this reason that MJE, for the first time in 21 years, would not host Shabbat services.

Areivus is fundamental to being Jewish and is expressed very powerfully through the following halacha in regard to reciting brachot (blessings). If one is eating with a fellow Jew not familiar with brachot, provided you are also eating, you can say the blessing for that other person and all your friend needs to do is have in mind to be yotze (satisfied) with your bracha, and if possible say Amen. However, you, the one saying the bracha, must be eating yourself.  However, this only applies to blessings recited over food. When it comes to blessings said before performing a mitzvah, the halacha is that even if you have already fulfilled your own obligation (for example, you’ve already donned your Tefilin or you have already recited the blessing over the Shabbat candles), you can recite the bracha again for a fellow Jew who may not know.

How is that allowed? You’ve already made your own blessing using Hashem’s name? How can you do it again? The Rabbeinu Nissim explains that when it comes to a birchot hamitzvah, a blessing recited before the performance of a mitzvah, because it is something in which we are all commanded and because all Jews are responsible for each other, you can say the blessing again – for as long as your fellow Jew has not fulfilled their mitzvah, your mitzvah is incomplete. What happens to someone else affects us. We cannot proceed with business as usual if someone else is lacking or is in trouble or in danger, be it after an attack in Israel or the Corona striking our next-door neighbor. Their concern is our concern.

Being a Jew means caring and feeling the pain of others. It means helping a friend who has lost their job, making some calls, helping them network to secure another position or just being there for them emotionally. I remember back in 2008 when the economy tanked and someone said to me: “Rabbi, don’t expect as many MJE participants to come to the Annual Dinner this year (we just postponed this year’s Dinner to June 9th) or to contribute, with the economy being as it is.”  And I remember responding to this person, that the day our participants stop giving back is the day this place shuts down. Not just because we need everyone’s support to continue our vital programming, but because when we stop being there for each other, ultimately, we stop being a community. A real community is comprised of members who care and who sacrifice for each other, who, in times of crisis, do not turn inward, but despite the challenge, rise to the occasion.

My friends, this is such a time. People are scared and uptight about the situation. Older people and those with preexisting conditions feel particularly vulnerable. We need to be there for them. If you have such a friend or family member or anyone else who is feeling isolated or fearful of the situation, call them. Reach out to them and call them often. If you cannot see them in person, use your iPhone so they can see you and feel the concern you have for them. Take advantage of the extra time you may have off from work to do some extra Torah studying. MJE is adding an on-line Zoom class every day from 12:30-1:00pm. And take some extra time to pray. Pray for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus (see list of names below) and pray that Hashem bless our efforts to contain the virus so we can see this ailment pass as soon as possible.

Our fate and destiny are bound with each other and so to beat the coronavirus we must look out for each other, like a family. The truth is, for a brother or a sister, we would do just about anything. We would give them whatever they needed, be it our grandfather’s pair of Tefilin or the shirt off our back. Stay connected, stay safe and keep looking out for each other. May the love and unity with which we approach this moment serve as zechut, as a spiritual merit for Hashem’s blessing of healing and peace.

Shabbat Shalom

People I’ve been asked to pray for:
Avraham Shmuel Ben Rachel
Zev Melech Ben Bedina
(Rav) Zalman Dov ben Esther
Yosef ben Ester
Eliezer Yitzchak ben Shifra
Harav Reuven ben Fruma
Ivriyah Miriam bat Malkah Reizel
Daniel Shmuel ben Miriam
Tziporah Hadarah bat Rachel
Elana Devorah bat Freidel Nechama
Shami Aryeh ben Menucha Sarah
Yaakov ben Rochel Miriam
Shmuel Tzvi ben Roiza Frimet
Shoshana bat Sarah
Yonina Sarah bat Chana
Elchanan Yehonatan ben Chaya
Andre Abraham ben Berthe
Aviva Rachel bat Rivka
Ariella Malka bat Aviva
Yael Michal bat Ruth
Uri ben Priva Chaya
Aharon Shaul ben Rachel
Yosef Dov ben Rivkah Chaya
Leah bas Devorah Basha
Yosef Batsalel ben Ruth
Yaakov Eliezer ben Miriam Masha
Yaakov Yitzchok Moshe ben Devorah
Eta Leah bat Perel
Shaul Michael ben Eta Leah
Eliyahu ben Ahuva
Yisroel Zev ben Atara Karni Dal Beilah

The above was a sermon given by Rabbi Mark Wildes at the Manhattan Jewish Experience, on Shabbat, January 18, 2020.

Series Navigation<< The Jewish Mindfulness Series: Part II

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