Last week, I went away for a few days with my family to Lake Placid. We rented a nice house which had many good reviews on Airbnb. As we were at the end of our five and half-hour long drive to Lake Placid and were a few minutes from our destination, we saw a long uphill road and we proceeded to drive up the road to arrive at our destination. It had been snowing so there was some snow and ice on the road. When we reached midway up the road, I couldn’t drive the car up the road anymore. I reversed down the hill and then I tried to accelerate so that maybe my speed would enable me to make it up the road. But I was unsuccessful.
In fact, my car got stuck in a snowbank and thankfully, a good Samaritan arrived out of nowhere and was able to pull my car out of the snowbank. Fortunately, the owners of the Airbnb house refunded our money and we were able to find another suitable house on such short notice. The owners of the house were surprised that we were not able to get up the hill. They told us that this was the first time that a renter could not make it up the hill. Presumably, other people who drove up that hill either had four-wheel drive in their cars or they drove up the hill at a time when the conditions on the ground were not icy.
This was also the first time that my car had not made it up a hill on a moderately icy road. I was surprised. Normally, my car can drive uphill, but not under these conditions. As my car was getting pulled out of the snowbank, I thought that me trying to drive up the icy road was similar to many of our experiences at this time. We believe that we know ourselves, know our capabilities, and have confidence in what we are typically able to do. And then, sometimes when we least expect it, we face challenging uphill battles that defy what we thought we knew about ourselves and our environments. Suddenly, things are different. For many of us today, COVID is like the icy conditions. We were caught off guard and now find ourselves feeling unmoored. Suddenly, we can’t do what we want to do, and what we had always assumed we could.
Some people, more than others, have struggled to adjust to this new reality. They cannot bring themselves to accept that they cannot act normally, and that life simply cannot just go on as it always has. They don’t understand why they can’t drive up the icy hill. There are many reasons for this communal response. For some, I believe, they have long separated themselves from the world at large and therefore are accustomed to following their own set of rules, even when their reality is so different from that of outside society. Some, for example, believe that the norm should be that the men should study Torah full-time and they needn’t exert themselves that much in earning a living. They have faith that God will provide for them and their families. For many, they may shun secular culture believing that it is harmful to their spiritual health.
They are very reluctant to change their customs even in extenuating circumstances because their customs are a source of spiritual strength. Normally, they can drive their car up an uphill road. They find a way to manage. However, we now find ourselves in a situation where the terrain has changed with icy conditions. Still, some cling to the customs that they believe has always sustained them. They think that they can manage even in these icy conditions. They think that they can have large weddings and large funerals and God will protect them.
I am aware that many people across all segments of the Jewish community are following legal requirements and health recommendations regarding social distancing and masking. At the same time, I wondered why certain members do not seem to abide by the Torah’s supreme value of preserving life and why when faced with the data of a disproportionate amount of new COVID cases in their community, they are reluctant to change their behavior.
It was then that I finally began to better understand the famous debate in the Talmud between Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Masechet Brachot (35b). Rabbi Yishmael believed that Jews should study Torah but also work the fields in order to earn a living. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai disagreed and believed that if Jewish people are fulfilling the will of God, then they need not work. They simply should study Torah and God will provide for them. This is the classic learner-earner vs. Kollel debate – which is better? Following their recorded dispute, Abaye stated that many people tried to follow Rabbi Yishmael’s learner-earner model and they were successful and many people tried to follow Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s kollel model and were unsuccessful. Does this mean that Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s approach of complete reliance in God is utterly rejected?
Not so fast. The Chafetz Chaim writes (Biur Halacha 156) that most people should go to work because they cannot achieve and maintain the high spiritual level of only occupying themselves in Torah study, but select individuals can certainly live this lifestyle. After all, Abaye wrote in Masechet Brachot that many people tried Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s approach and were unsuccessful, but that means that some were successful. There is room for select individuals to live a life where they passionately engage in the spiritual world 24/7 and are somewhat detached from the physical world and they may believe that God will provide for them.
We live in a not-one-size-fits-all Judaism and there is room for the “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai kollel and God will provide” model — but only for select individuals. Why only for select individuals? I think that there is value to having a small segment of Jews who are a little detached from this world to give us a taste of a purer spiritual existence just like there is value to celebrating a Yom Kippur when we are detached from the physical pleasures of this world, but only one day a year. It’s good to witness or experience a taste of otherworldliness and appreciate the beauty of its simplicity even if it’s not how we practice religion on a regular basis. According to Abaye, you can have a small group of high-caliber individuals who live a “God will provide” life because these individuals will understand that there is a difference between withdrawing from the secular culture and the pleasures of the world and withdrawing from legal and health requirements to protect society from the dangers of COVID.
Certain select individuals are sophisticated enough to make these distinctions. However, Abaye correctly observed that the masses cannot be successful in such a lifestyle. The masses may not appropriately distinguish between rejecting secular culture and rejecting science. The masses may not appropriately distinguish between preserving their customs in most instances and foregoing customs like large weddings and funerals during a pandemic. The masses are willing to drive uphill, but they think that they can still drive uphill in icy conditions, and unfortunately, the results could very well be fatal.
Let us appreciate the advantages of all the different approaches to serving God, even those approaches to which we may not personally subscribe. But let us also understand that certain approaches can be successful models for individuals, but not for the masses, as these approaches can endanger our entire community.